- Jen Cloher has always written intensely personal, emotionally charged music. Her 2017 self-titled album dwelt heavily on her then-current relationship with fellow singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett. Specifically, it focused on navigating the challenges of being in an intimate relationship with someone cast so quickly and unexpectedly into the public eye.
Cloher’s new album, I Am The River, The River Is Me is rich in themes of rebirth and self discovery. Ripe with metaphor, the album’s title symbolises being swept away by the power of your past, emerging cleansed and able to rebuild once the waters reside. Far from seeming trapped or powerless, the implied ownership in the album’s title celebrates Cloher’s role as architect of her own destiny.
Cloher’s discovery of the Māori word Takatāpui provided the catalyst for the powerful sense of identity, both sexual and cultural, that courses through I Am The River, The River Is Me. In the Māori language, a takatāpui denotes an intimate partner of the same sex, more broadly its usage encompasses any Māori person within the LGBT community.
Sounding particularly beautiful when sung, the Māori language is central to the sound and feel of I Am The River, The River Is Me. This beauty is emphasised through the presence of Māori lyrics in almost all of the album’s tracks, alongside four tracks with Māori titles. Cloher’s repeated utilisation of the language indicates her deep connection to and continued exploration of Māori culture.
Released as the album’s first single, Mana Takatāpui was written as an ode to, and in celebration of the Māori LGBT community. Cloher has stated she hopes the song will serve as a rallying cry for the takatapui community. This intent is made obvious through her pairing of mana, Māori for power, with takatāpui, literally meaning takatāpui power, or power to takatāpui. Beginning with quiet vocals over a softly strummed nylon string guitar, the track builds gradually before ending in a joyous, communal chorus.
Built around a guitar riff heavily indebted to Joan Jett and The Runaways, My Witch is a short and sweet ode to lust and pleasure. Unique among the album’s other tracks, it features a throbbing synth line that provides the song with an electronic heartbeat. Unapologetically danceable, it provides a light hearted contrast to the album’s other, heavier content and allows Cloher the freedom to unleash her inner pop princess.
Cloher has never shied from making a statement and Being Human is perhaps the album’s most obvious. Demonstrating an empathy rooted in her knowledge of colonisation’s impact on Māori culture, Being Human details her personal history growing up on stolen land in so-called Australia. Throughout the song she recounts the traditional place names of locations which played a formative role in her past. In the song’s powerful final lines, Cloher makes her position crystal clear, “Sovereignty never ceded so / Land back or we gotta go.”
I Am The River, The River Is Me is Jen Cloher’s most personal album yet, and her most diverse. Across ten tracks, Cloher demonstrates her ability to employ a variety of musical styles without compromising cohesion. This willingness to experiment would be the album’s most noteworthy attribute, were it not for the songs themselves. It takes courage to write with such vulnerability and whilst I Am The River, The River Is Me may lack the volume of past releases, this more muted approach does nothing to rob the album of its power, or emotional depth.