LET’S NOT kid ourselves. Jars of Clay owes much of its towering stature in the Christian music world—the weight that makes a record like this one such an eagerly awaited moment—to being the proverbial big fish in a small pond, or, if you prefer your imagery darker, the “good monsters” in a land populated with an array of beastly artistic endeavors. For most of their decade-plus career, they have been a good band, perhaps as good as Christian bands come. Problem is, their competition has never been all that formidable, and Jars haven’t made a dent outside the safe confines of the Christian Book Distributors catalog. So the nagging question: even if they’re pretty good, do they really matter?
The historical reverence for Jars of Clay is certainly colored with nostalgia: their much-worshipped self-titled debut now sounds as dated as most 1990s Christian music, and, the haunting “Liquid” aside, rather spare and obvious. The fantastic second outing, Much Afraid, stuck up for their depth and songwriting, but If I Left the Zoo, the first Jars album to really try any kind of textural experimentation, fell disappointingly, resoundingly flat. (Reviewing Zoo, NME heaved a sigh of relief that the CCM industry has little traction in Britain—a small but pointed reminder of how low the bar is set inside the Nashville fortress.)
Even though the full records don’t tell the same flattering story you’d get from the string of hit singles, it would be most uncharitable to ignore the qualities Jars of Clay exemplify inside the Christian industry, where their example has been loyal, longsuffering, and admirable. They have always taken their work seriously; no page of their catalog bears the thumbprints of meddling studios or the spiritual drivel peddled by most of their contemporaries. And that’s to say nothing of the band’s leadership outside of music, from prodding the Christian world to address AIDS to refusing engage in petty cultural squabbling. (It seems amazing now that such a thing was ever a controversy, but Jars of Clay once drew fire for vocally refusing to support an evangelical boycott of Disney.)
They might have been lost in the sinking sands of the recent Christian music realignment—quite a few original fans fairly or unfairly considered the “middle” records a period of meandering decline—if not for 2006’s Good Monsters, a fine record and a masterstroke of cultural timing. It was just about then becoming clear that the old conception of “Christian music” as its own vibrant subculture would soon be gone forever, and its greatest stars had almost faded from view. Then back bounds Jars of Clay, bursting with confidence and vision, and likely winning droves of fans who were scarcely walking when their debut hit ten years before. (The title was also rumored to be a metaphor for Christian music’s inability to fix itself.) With its sharp tunes, meaty licks, and snappy pace, Good Monsters marked one of the rare occasions when the collective adoration of CCM, Jesus Freak Hideout, et al., was fully earned.
That rejuvenation set up a dilemma for the ninth studio album. What would they do next after finding themselves a retro-rock sweet spot ten years into a shape-shifting career? Do it again? Reinvent once more? Perhaps that question hung over the powwow where they decided to call this record The Long Fall Back to Earth. If that was indeed the case, the publicists didn’t get the memo: the album’s press release is packed with stratospheric references to “lush” production and “sweeping musical landscapes,” all chilling code language for “U2.” I, for one, can’t think of a prospect less attractive than watching Jars of Clay enlist in the Snow Patrol and fill the gritty hole they blasted open last time with lots of swelly weeping.
Not to worry. The Jars are not entirely innocent of over-blustering (see if you can find a more blatant piece of U2 mimicry than “Hero”), but Long Fall’s pop infrastructures mostly avoid the powerful orbit of the U2-Coldplay supernova. Energetic rock seems to suit them well; everything sounds as fresh as it did on Good Monsters, where Dan Haseltine played the commanding front man for the first time. Here, we get to watch his opaque-ish turns of phrase and his wispy, hooky pre-choruses turn into graceful arcs, embellished with just the right amount of drama and theater.
Clocking in at a bloated 60 minutes, this record could have been easily improved by lopping off the first three tracks—a superfluous piano intro, the non-starter single “Two Hands”—and having it begin with the crisp, spring-loaded “Heaven.” It’s among the best examples of a Jars of Clay song being blown to giant proportions and still maintaining its punch: no overweening strings, thank God, and a sticky line about “glowing on the inside” to which you surrender your consciousness at your own risk. The same goes for the chime-backed pre-chorus of “Closer,” one of the finest songs Jars of Clay have ever produced. The fast beats, rough distortion, weaving synths and tightly-knitted harmonies don’t quite sound like anything ever heard from this band, but they sound as straightforward and assured as the Jars ever have.
Christian records almost always walk a fine line between loud and soft, and this one is no exception; Long Fall has its requisite moments of hushed introspection, both the good (the horn-and-Katie-Herzig-accented “Headphones”) and the blasé (the undeservingly verbose “Boys/Lesson One.”) “Headphones” nearly dips into the broody melancholy of vintage Jars songs like “Frail” (“We watch television/But the sound is something else/Just a song played against the drama/So the hurt is never felt”). The elegant, circling “Safe to Land” is among the best writing on the record, imagining the disgraced party in a relationship as a hovering plane needing “your runway lights to burn for me.”
As well-written and nicely executed as a number of these songs are, it slowly dawns, digging and sifting through the fourteen tracks, how little there is to say about the whole record—how little it demands of mind and senses. Jars of Clay seem to enjoy playing in the space that many Christian artists, themselves included, have been working so hard to carve out. But where do we go from here? We’re hardly at a point to stop and congratulate ourselves. It’s great to see an old CCM favorite still making good music, but shouldn’t they, of all people, be giving us some kind of a challenge?
David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He covers religion for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and is a graduate student in the Draper Program for Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. He can be reached at hdavidsessions at gmail dot com.
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