The first time I listened to Jen Cloher’s new record, In Blood Memory, I was in bed, awash on a sea of cheap red wine, rolling in that place between sleep and wake. I always thought it was the perfect place to listen to music – an uncritical space where intellect is irrelevant and feeling is all.
Sort of like the best rock and roll.
The second time I listened to In Blood Memory – thinking its beauty had seduced me on that first drunken listen while I wasn’t looking – was on a night train, rolling through the city. Once again, Cloher’s music took me away, the passing rail lights twinkling as if in a dream.
In Blood Memory is a collection of songs that seem to call from that primal place where the best music and art is made. Evanescent, ill-defined, dreamily visceral, cloudy. It is the hazy place of The Velvet Underground, Bitches Brew, one-chord blues, Mark Rothko’s blur-edged canvases.
It is also very very beautiful, with a beauty that is just beyond your grasp, and far far beyond language.
A song such as ‘Name In Lights’, the album’s second track, swings between angular rock and roll (with a nicely smacked-out ‘Wild Thing’ garage breakdown in the middle) and a frenzied ending, the band almost drowning Cloher’s “There’s nothing I can do” refrain in dervish-like intensity. This coda brings to mind that of the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” where a repeated pattern is slowly sand-blasted by howling synthesized wind until detail is eradicated down to white noise. Once again, the blurred shape.
The final track, ‘Hold My Hand’ has a similar curve, with an ominous thunderhead of an ending (with a raw-edged dissonant final chord) surprising after a coolly passionate song.
‘Kamikaze Origami’ and ‘David Bowie Eyes’ (“one is green and one is blue”) are Lou Reed country-rock gems. The latter has Cloher singing “She’s got David Bowie eyes” with the same downward inflection that Kim Carnes put on 1981’s “She’s Got Bette Davis Eyes”. Pop culture references abound throughout In Blood Memory: Darren Hanlon rubs denimed shoulders with Yoko, Meryl Streep breaks on through with The Lizard King. Cloher can’t help singing the word “changes” as “ch-ch-changes” on ‘Name In Lights’.
As wonderful as the songs are – and every one is wonderful – it is Jen Cloher’s voice and the band that elevate the album. She inhabits each song as only a songwriter can (think Paul Simon, Reed or Lennon), swaggering, aching (the luminous ‘Needs’), spitting over unwashed guitars (the Stonesy rolling ‘Toothless Tiger’). ‘Toothless Tiger’ shows her band as a band – a breathing many-armed beastie that lives a full life if only for 3:52. That the same band can also weave fresh-air country tapestries such as ‘Kamikaze Origami’ is nicely surprising.
In Blood Memory is a very beautiful album of great rock and roll. It puts Jen Cloher firmly to the forefront of Australian songwriters. If I hear a better Oz album this year I will be pretty bloody surprised.
Prior to publishing this review I asked Jen a handful of questions. Here are her responses:
TOP: It is four years since your last album, Hidden Hands. What was the spark that led to In Blood Memory?
Cloher: I’d been writing for a couple of years, doing all sorts of stuff. I spent some time co-writing and even recorded some duets, one with Kieran Ryan and another with Courtney Barnett. But I found co-writing strange, it was fun but it didn’t feel like I’d want to write a whole album that way. I guess I was trying to find something new to open up my songwriting. One day I picked up the guitar and started writing a song called ‘Mount Beauty’ and it felt different, there was something about it that felt new. That was the first single from the new album and opened the door to the rest of the album. It came very quickly after that, over about six months, then we headed straight into the studio and recorded the album in six days.
TOP: The band really sounds like a band – how do you as songwriter interact with your chosen musos? Benevolent despot or one of the guys?
Cloher: We recorded live in a big room with my band at Headgap Studios in Melbourne. They’re my closest friends and I see them pretty much everyday, so there isn’t too much that needs to be communicated. When you’re recording live you have to listen closely to each other and move as a whole. I love that feeling, of finding a great performance in the studio and committing it to tape.
TOP: There are references to a return to youth in several of the songs – ‘Make me feel like I’m seventeen/Listening to the Lizard King…’ or ‘I’ll pretend I’m younger…’ Do you feel your generation feels this more keenly than any previous generation?
Cloher: It’s hard to say. All I know is that I’m getting older, and when you get older you start to reflect on where you’ve come from. It’s strange because you never think you are going to get older and then all of a sudden you are. We live in a society where expectation is placed on your age. I see younger friends feeling like failures in their mid 20’s! It’s ridiculous how much emphasis we place on achieving certain things by a certain age, people are celebrated for being young and successful. But when it comes to art, who really cares how old you are? It’s the art that will stand the test of time.
TOP: Where do your songs come from?
Cloher: If I knew I’d go there all the time.
TOP: ‘Ch-ch-changes’, ‘David Bowie Eyes’, Yoko, Meryl Streep – Pop culture seems to be just under the skin of your songs. Does Pop culture inform your approach to writing?
Cloher: It’s strange but for some reason all of these pop culture references started to find their way into my songs. I guess I discovered how much I am influenced by what has gone before me. While I was writing the album I was reading Patti Smith’s ‘Just Kids’ and Neil Young’s ‘Shaky’ – two artists with very different but equally intriguing journeys through rock n roll. I also name check Darren Hanlon in the song ‘Name In Lights’ because he’s a legend.
TOP: Your vocal delivery seems to carry a great deal of light and shade. You are a NIDA graduate – do you feel as if theatre work shapes how you deliver a song?
Cloher: Absolutely, it’s not a conscious decision I make when I write a song but songs are essentially stories, and a story is always going to end somewhere different to where it started. I love epic songs for that reason. After listening to Leonard Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ or Patti Smith’s ‘Horses’ you feel transformed. That’s the power and chemistry of music – the ability to communicate so much in such a sort amount of time.
Jen Cloher and her band launch In Blood Memory at Melbourne’s Vic at The Corner Hotel Friday 28 June. In Sydney the launch is at The Oxford Art Factory Friday 12 July.
Published June 2013 on theorangepress.net