Album Review: Jen Cloher: I Am The River, The River Is Me (2023)

An Unapologetic affirmation of themselves that from the opening song shines all the way through. The album delivers a firm YET soFt-spoken ANTHEM OF RESILIENCE that echoes deep and hooks listeners from the start.

I Am the River, the River Is Me is a beautiful record. It delivers a mature and confident stance of resistance, that magically transcends Jen Cloher’s personal experiences and becomes that of the listeners. It honors Cloher’s Māori heritage -the indigenous people of Aotearoa, New Zealand, and is the first time they have woven the Māori language through their songwriting.

Through their lines, Cloher openly shares their personal journey through their self discovery and self proclamation both as a queer individual and as member of the Māori community. There is no truer act of resilience than that of openly declaring and accepting yourself. Though politically charged, the songs never feel heavy nor passive but rather, warming and uplifting, beautifully layered with emotional richness. They are not a passive acceptance but instead a celebration of Cloher’s personal journey.

“Mana Takatâpui,” takatâpui being the Māori word for queer, opens the album with a delicate harmony that blends into a lively, almost poppy guitar chord that serves as a perfect platform for Cloher’s subtle and modulated vocals. Switching between English and Māori doesn’t distract the listeners but rather further pulls them in adding to the vocals an extra element of earthy mystification.

The second song, “Harakeke” (or the flax plant that has been used by Māori for whāriki -weaving), continues with a similar effortless airiness of the previous track, and navigates in a way the connection of the spirit world with that of the living, reality, and dreams. About this single Cloher writes, “Patti Smith once said ‘The dead speak. We have forgotten how to listen.’ Te Ao Māori (the Māori worldview) tends to agree. We know there is a thin veil between the living and the dead and that our Tūpuna (ancestors) are right there with us. This is the spirit I felt close when I was writing and recording the album. I am not doing this alone and it’s not just for me.”

“My Witch” is another highlight track.  The song presents itself with deeper electronic beats, accompanied by funky guitar screeches that allow the song to stand out but also guide the listeners to the next song.  “Being Human” is undoubtedly the most powerful on the album -both lyrically and musically.  Cloher here is backed by powerfully haunting Haka chants.  They write, “being human is learning to let go of what you think you know, staying human is listening, listening, listening.”  Such a simple concept and somehow relevant in a society that is always connected but somehow simultaneously so tone deaf.  The song’s powerful crescendo echoes the personal desperate screams for attention to issues that seem to, way too often, fall on deaf ears.  The song is also a way for Cloher to reconnect with their ancestors and somehow balance the feeling of being as they put it “an uninvited guest” on colonized land. 

The title track opens with a more delicate stance, and in contrast to the previous songs, feels so intimate.  It feels almost conversational even, growing in intensity as it unfolds, reaching its peak toward the end with the steady chant, “E rere kau ana te awa mai i Te Kāhui Maunga ki a Tangaroa, ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au” (from the mountains to the sea, I am the river, the river is me).

The horns in “Protest Song” seem able to uplift the listener while guiding them through the acceptance of the uncertainty of life and the interconnection that tie us all -even if unwillingly.  All humans are connected and each event falls like a domino into another.  

All great art comes from a very personal inner place of pain, emotion, and growth.  But a timeless piece of art has the ability to take that personal journey and make it into a story that’s relatable.  Jen Cloher manages that with this album.  I Am the River, the River Is Me, is an album that must be listened to all the way through allowing its changing tempos to lull you like the calm, and at times, stormy currents of a river. 

I Am The River, The River Is Me is out now. 

Official | Spotify | Apple Music

Rating: 8.5/10

As I said many times before music is always best served live so if you are able to try to catch any of her live dates listed below and witness the magic she brings to her music first hand:

Jen Cloher Tour – 2023
7 – Deaf Institute, Manchester UK (Tickets)
8 – Belgrave Music Hall, Leeds UK (Tickets)
9 – The Cumberland Arms, Newcastle UK (Tickets)
10 – Stereo, Glasgow UK (Tickets)
11 – The Hare & Hounds, Birmingham UK (Tickets)
13 – Jazz Café, London UK (Tickets)
14 – Louisiana, Bristol UK (Tickets)
15 – Green Door Store, Brighton UK (Tickets)
16 – Witfloof Bar Botanique, Brussels BE (Tickets)
17 – EKKO, Utrecht NL (Tickets)
18 – Rotown, Rotterdam NL (Tickets)
20 – Supersonic, Paris FR (Tickets)
22 – Molotow Skybar, Hamburg DE (Tickets)
23 – Privatclub, Berlin DE (Tickets)

28 – Meow, Wellington NZ
29 – Whammy Bar, Auckland NZ

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