Mo’ju – ‘O.K.’ review: Restless and revelatory

The Wiradjuri/Filipino artist has always tapped into vulnerability, but her mini-album still surprises with its therapeutic intensity

As bold and empowering as Mo’ju’s 2018 single ‘Native Tongue’ was, revisit that breakthrough moment now and you’ll hear plenty of self-doubt peeking through the swagger. Digging into her Filipino and Wiradjuri ancestry and wondering where she fits in as a queer Australian woman who doesn’t speak her father’s language, Mo’Ju readily admits: “I don’t know where I belong.”

Such unguarded openness is a hallmark of Mojo Ruiz de Luzuriaga, who began performing as Mojo Juju (first with a backing band and then solo) in the mid-aughts before renaming herself Mo’Ju in 2020. Even when belting out blues-tinged throwbacks early in her career, Mo’Ju tapped directly into her vulnerability. And as her music has become more electronic and fragmented, she has revealed more and more of herself.

In the three years since ‘Native Tongue’ – a song that blew up enough to provoke disdain from conversative commentator Andrew Bolt – Mo’Ju has continued to focus on self-examination. Her 2019 EP ‘Ghost Town’ with rapper, producer and multi-instrumentalist Joelistics (who produced ‘Native Tongue’) explored the lingering presence of trauma, memories and lost loved ones. Even when Mo’Ju slipped into romantic disco mode for a cover of the percolating Donna Summer classic ‘I Feel Love’ for Bonds’ Pride campaign last February, her vocal delivery still gave the sense that she was gazing thoughtfully inwards.

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Yet Mo’Ju’s new mini-album still feels downright revelatory in its therapeutic intensity. Inspired by fraught negotiations with her mental health, especially during lockdown, ‘O.K.’ yanks open the curtains on her spiralling internal monologue. “I’m not OK / Is that OK to say?” she asks on opener ‘Okay’, seeming to address her spontaneous concerns in real time.

The music is equally restless, as Mo’Ju and her longtime collaborators Henry Jenkins and Lewis Coleman (both from The Cactus Channel) dive into spacey, dislocated arrangements and production. Sudden textural changes abound, from horn-like squeals to unexpected patches of empty space. Mo’Ju is edging closer towards the futuristic jazz, soul and R&B experiments of Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder label (whose roster includes Australian kindred spirits Hiatus Kaiyote), especially in the use of layered, fluctuating percussion.

But ‘O.K.’ is not cold, mechanical music. Instead, live instrumentation organically mingles with buoyant electronic programming, as when delicate, jazzy guitar threads through ‘Into These Feelings’ and the following ‘Pissing in the Wind’, a skeletal two-minute vignette that questions the effectiveness of prayers. Lead single ‘Wave’ is equally spectral, unfolding like a minimalistic demo.

The lyrics throughout are piercingly personal. But just when it seems that Mo’Ju is sinking deeper and deeper into despair, the final few tracks describe a climb back towards optimism. Rather than simply mapping the mire of isolation and depression, ‘In Another Life’ warns that keeping silent about such things is even more harmful. And though she admits “I’d be lying if I said that I was fine” on ‘Sometime’, that turns out to be the catchiest song here, thanks to its accelerated vocal delivery and funky pulse. “Gonna get my shit together,” she repeats, quaking with the sheer urgency of correcting her course.

And by the time we reach the closing ‘Not Forever’, it sounds like Mo’Ju is moving on – in a healthy way. “Won’t feel like this forever,” she sings, pointing to the fact that her heart continues to pump. The song’s – and album’s – parting phrase follows suit: “Just let it go.” That dramatic arc is no accident, and the gradual revival of hope across these seven songs is both encouraging and resonant. Whatever Mo’Ju does next, you can be sure she won’t be hiding behind anything – and she won’t be alone in how she’s feeling.

Details

Mo'Ju 2021 EP OK
  • Release date: November 19
  • Record label: Heavy Machinery
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