Album Reviews

Jen Cloher – I Am The River, The River Is Me

(Milk/Marathon Artists) UK release date: 3 March 2023

A stridently political album covering indigenous sovereignty, LGBTQ+ rights, environmental awareness and devastating bushfires, sung in both English and Māori

Jen Cloher - I Am The River, The River Is Me Jen Cloher‘s first album for five years seems like a kind of rebirth. Although born in Australia, Cloher’s heritage is descended from the indigenous Polynesian people of Aotearoa, New Zealand, known as the Māori. I Am The River, The River Is Me is Cloher’s tribute to those people, more specifically the LGBTQ+ community – the album’s opening track, Mana Takatāpui, is taken from the Māori word for ‘devoted partner of the same sex’.

It’s the springboard for an album which is stridently political – themes tackled include indigenous sovereignty, environmental awareness and the bushfires that still sweep through Australia causing untold amounts of damage. And, to really push the themes of the songs further, Cloher sings in both English and Māori, and there are contributions from various Māori musicians throughout the album.

It’s quite the achievement, and not just because in most hands this could turn into something a bit too worthy, or too much of a polemic. Yet Cloher’s songs are beautifully drawn, warm and well observed, and their Māori influences feel naturally part of the music here, and never awkwardly crowbarred in.

There are some moments on this album where Cloher goes beyond their usual musical comfort zone. My Witch is a bit of an outlier on the album – for this is Cloher’s sex song, to put it frankly, a funky, catchy anthem to all things carnal, with lyrics like “now you got me on my knees, gimme some of that big dyke D” and “couldn’t give a damn about size, when your head’s between my thighs”. It’s a song that veritably smoulders out of the speakers and something totally different from what we’ve heard from Cloher before.

Protest Song addresses more global concerns, as in whether music can actually make a difference to world affairs. It also features an attention-grabbing first line of “one night after the show, a woman came backstage – burst through the door crying, saying we need to do something”. It’s a lovely, lilting acoustic-led number, with a melody that you just feel like sinking into. Being Human is at the other end of the scale musically, an urgent, powerful anthem about genocide and the history that comes with it, featuring pummelling drums and the occasional sound of a haka chant. Coming towards the start of the album, it’s a quite brilliant statement of intent.

The title track builds magnificently and majestically over its five minute running time, climaxing in a spine-tingling Māori chant, while He Toka-Tu-Moana is almost a lullaby, a duet sung in Māori with Em-Haley Walker, otherwise known as TE KAAHU, who harmonises beautifully with Cloher. It all comes to a head with the beautifully, calming I Am Coming Home, a tribute to Cloher’s lineage which sums up the many themes of the album.

Compared to some of their Antipodean contemporaries, Jen Cloher seems to have flown under the radar a bit. I Am The River, The River Is Me should hopefully be the album that eventually turns them into a big star.

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Jen Cloher – I Am The River, The River Is Me
Jen Cloher @ Lexington, London