Jen Cloher performed at The Lexington, London on 25th September 2017
en Cloher steps on stage and plucks a lone, melancholy guitar riff. As she begins to sing her soul-stirring lullaby, this seems like the exact antithesis of Cable Ties, our fantastically fervent post-punk opening act. Her bandmates join her with haunting, overlapping vocals as the song gradually swells to an aching crescendo. The intimate, sold-out audience realise that even her tender tunes are every bit as powerful as the most impassioned punk rock.
This opening number is Hold My Hand (from Cloher’s 2013 album In Blood Memory). It is a hard-hitting tale of two ageing lovers, recounting a conversation Cloher overheard between her parents. While Cloher cared for her Alzheimer’s disease suffering mother in the final years of her life, she heard her father movingly describe to his wife how they met, only for her to forget moments later. Cloher echoes her mother’s words as she movingly sings “how did we meet again?” This song sets a precedent that will continue into the evening. With a beguiling blend of heart-rending lyrics, powerful guitar and rock star swagger, we will watch on as the Australian singer-songwriter bares her innermost anxieties and passions on stage.
Jen Cloher – whose debut album, 2006’s Dead Wood Falls saw her nominated for Best Female Artist at the 2006 ARIA Music Awards – has enjoyed critical acclaim throughout her career. Yet only with the release of her latest record has she firmly established her international success. Surprisingly, this is her first ever European tour; and for this, we feel her gratitude and relief. “Most of us don’t make it this far” she tells the audience, adding “it only took me four fucking albums and 12 years!”
|Jen Cloher at The Lexington|
Naturally, a huge chunk of Cloher’s set is derived from this breakthrough self-titled album. Seeing its tracks performed before us with such vigour only verifies its status as an uncompromisingly candid masterpiece. Tonight, we are introduced to a lyricist informed equally by her disillusion with the music industry and a yearning ardour for Rock and Roll. We move into the burning homage to Rock music that is Kinda Biblical, “I don’t wanna / I don’t Think so” she growls, in a brazen reference to Sonic Youth’s Kool Thing. Although Cloher will venture through moments of folk bliss tonight, her songs have a simmering, unfeigned anger which wouldn’t be out of place on an early PJ Harvey album.
A prominent theme explored in Cloher’s new record is that of being overshadowed by her younger partner, the globally popular, indie sensation Courtney Barnett. Given this, one feels almost dirty for mentioning Barnett in a review of Cloher’s gig. But Barnett – who joins Cloher on stage as guitarist and backing singer – plays a role beyond the real-life love and jealousy she instils in her partner. Her slacker rock guitar shredding powerfully underlines the brutal honesty of Cloher’s song writing. This combination works fantastically in Shoegazers, a delightful exercise in hip-swinging cynicism, which has Cloher snarling the opening line “Indie rock is full of privileged white kids / I know because I’m one of them” over Barnett’s loose, bluesy guitar.
|Courtney Barnett joining Cloher on stage|
It is hardly surprising, that following the release of such an evocative album, the night is a politically charged one. With the Australian postal vote on same-sex marriage approaching, Cloher uses her music to voice the absurdity of this $122 million advisory ballot. “Take a plebiscite / To decide / If I can have a wife”, she sings in Analysis Paralysis; glancing longingly at her life partner beside her. The song culminates in a disjointed thrash of battling guitars – the evening truly feels like a cathartic release for Cloher.
The righteous vehemence comes to a head with Strong Woman, a track with such blistering feminism it resonates like a refined Bikini Kill song. It is only appropriate that the members of Cable Ties join Cloher on stage to scream along with the song’s rallying refrain; “This world it wasn’t made for woman / you know even before you’re bleeding / I’m sorry, can’t you hear me speaking? / How is it now, now that I’m screaming?” We are witnessing an exquisite songwriter unleash her frustration with explosive effect.
Returning for an encore, Cloher ends her set with Name in Lights – a song which traverses gracefully between the light and dark of poetic folk and primal rock and roll, culminating in a cacophony of sound that leaves us all entranced.
Cloher commands the stage, distilling her emotion, the rich imagery of the Australian zeitgeist and a life spent wallowing in art into a performance that is slick and effortlessly cool. It has been a privilege to watch a true master contribute to the great song writing tradition.
Cloher sings “We’re all from down under, where no-one hears out thunder” in Great Australian Bite – well, tonight we heard it loud and clear.