Jars of Clay – Closer EP: You get me Closer to God (but not in a Nine-Inch-Nails sort of way)

2008_JarsofClay_CloserEPArtist: Jars of Clay
Album: Closer EP
Year: 2008
Grade: B+

In Brief: Revisiting the past is fun and somewhat intriguing, but I’m more interested in the three songs that give a glimpse of this band’s promising independent future.

As I mentioned in my review of their seasonal album Christmas Songs last year, my favorite band, Jars of Clay, had the good sense to finally go indie. In the landscape of “Christian music”, where fewer and fewer of the viable artists in that genre are actually getting played on Christian radio stations with every passing year, it’s almost necessary to say goodbye to the major labels if an artist wants to maintain some sense of artistic integrity. There are some major-label stalwarts who have stuck around and who still get the job done quite well, but these are becoming quite rare. And mainstream success, while it tends to favor a lot more Christian bands these days than it used to back when Jars of Clay had their solitary mainstream hit, is fleeting. It’s all part of the tension between making something that sells and making something that speaks to the listener – it’s not like any record label would be opposed to the latter, but doing something that genuinely surprises a listener often translates to record labels getting nervous about the changes and wondering whether your newest batch of songs will be laden with strong enough hooks enough to be instantly noticed. It’s because of this extremely conservative attitude in the big leagues that I cheered Jars’ decision to leave behind their label after 2006’s Good Monsters, to finally turn out that holiday recording they’d dreamed of doing for several years, and to continue creating witty, innovative, and catchy little songs that attempt to explore issues of faith from outside the confines of the usual Christian jargon. Their EP Closer, released in the summer of 2008, works as sort of a sneak peek into this new chapter of the band’s career.

Truth be told, I’m actually a bit puzzled by Closer. Its very existence as a 5-song EP goes against the band’s usual approach of saving their best material for their full-length albums. I’m not sure if these were songs that didn’t fit the overall theme of whatever they’re working on for 2009, or if they were just excited for fans to hear something new as soon as possible, and they took advantage of their creative freedom to release music on their own timetable instead of having to wait whatever industry bigwigs would consider to be a strategic release date. I like the brief exploration of a new musical direction that I’m hearing here – as I always do with Jars of Clay and their tireless exploration of the nooks and crannies of the intersection between pop, folk, and rock. I just want more of it than only a light snack of three new songs.

But wait, I said this was a 5-song EP. That’s actually because the band chose to get in the Wayback Machine, retrieve a few old songs from their debut album recorded 13 long years ago, and to deconstruct and reshape them in new versions for the year 2008. These aren’t exactly obscure songs, either – their most popular stuff (much to my chagrin) continues to be the material from that first album, and while I can see why they’d want to bring the production values and artistic nuances of their oldest material up to speed with their current sound, there’s a part of me that wonders if these same old hits really needed to be spruced up one more time – especially when their most popular song of all time has been stripped of one of its most defining characteristics. We’re getting to the point where there are 4 or 5 versions of these two songs floating around in the Jars of Clay discography, while there are plenty of other older songs that perhaps got overlooked and could be redone to catch the attention of an audience still getting up to speed on their back catalogue. This is probably an issue that bugs me more than it would bug your average Jars of Clay fan – and none of this changes the fact that they could pluck almost any song out of their entire catalogue and redo it, and come up with a still-worthwhile version of what was likely a solid song to begin with. There’s simply so much good stuff throughout the band’s history that singling out any of it is going to remind me of a lot of other strong material that got overlooked.

It’s the addition of the two remakes that admittedly makes Closer a bit of a grab bag, rather than a fully realized sampling of what lies ahead for the band. It’s a Frankenstein-ish hybrid of old and new. But just like pretty much everything new this band puts out, it subverts fans’ expectations and asks them to examine what they’re singing along too a little more closely.


1. Closer

You’re my shirt, I’m an arm
I’m the tick, you’re the bomb
You’re the L and the V, I’m the O and the E
Am I speaking clearly?

The title track, which is the band’s newest single (assuming Christian radio stations will actually play stuff not backed by major label dollars), represents the band at what might be their quirkiest and geekiest. That’s not a bad thing, but since Charlie Lowell is playing up the pre-programmed synths and drum beats and Dan Haseltine‘s vocals are heavily distorted, this is about as far as you can get from the organic folk/rock approach that the band has often employed. It’s precisely the sort of song that chooses to embrace its own goofiness rather than playing it cool, which of course is going to make uptight Christian music fans nervous when they have trouble untangling the silly metaphors about kite strings tangled in trees and leaky boats and so forth – it’s like they’re using a childlike sort of language to describe a gap between two people who want to be in a loving relationship with each other, but can’t. It’s up to the listener to decide what type of relationship this represents to them – it’s an upbeat, peppy, and seemingly happy song, but one that refuses to hand over its meaning effortlessly without a little head-scratching on the listener’s part, despite how obvious its refrain of “If you want my love, well you’ve got to get close to me” might seem.

2. Safe to Land
I’m in no weather for apologies
I need your runway lights to burn for me
And if you say that I can come around
I’ll love you right, yeah, I won’t let you down

Moodier strains of bass and electric guitar quietly open this stunning song that slowly reveals itself to be one of the best that the band has ever written. It’s the kind of song you’d expect to find buried in the back half of an album mostly filled with punchier rock songs – think something more pensive like “Faith Enough” or “Light Gives Heat”, that takes a few listens before it registers that they’ve come up with something truly breathtaking. Dan Haseltine is at his most weary and apologetic here as he sings to someone he knows he’s let down, asking for a completely undeserved clean slate and the chance to begin their relationship anew. The concept of grace is depicted using the metaphor of a plane circling in the sky, awaiting clearance to land and knowing that the landing is the most dangerous part of the journey. The sparse nature of the song’s intro and the way that it takes its time to fully unfold into a beautiful, shimmering passage filled with drums and synths and guitarist Steve Mason‘s lovely background vocals, will get it described as a “slow song” by most fans, and apparently that means it wasn’t deemed good enough to be part of their ridiculously brief opening-for-the-opener-for-the-opening-act setlist on Third Day‘s most recent tour (seriously, what a waste that Jars of Clay had to play fourth fiddle to that increasingly bland praise band in a Southern rock band’s disguise), but for my money, it’s not only on my short list of favorite Jars songs, it might just be my favorite song of the year 2008 as a whole.

3. Love Song for a Savior ’08
Sitting silent wearing Sunday best
The sermon echoes through the walls
A great salvation through it calls to the people, who stare into nowhere
And can’t feel the chains on their souls

You probably know this one if you have even a superficial knowledge of Jars of Clay’s history. I know I’ve had to describe the original version of it several times, with its cheery acoustic guitar strum and its vaguely urban beat, recorded at a time when it was still considered a novel idea to mix the two. The song has aged extremely well, truth be told – probably more so than some of the “rockier” songs on the band’s debut that suffered a bit in comparison to better songs recorded with an actual drummer later in their career. It’s one of their most transparently “religious” songs, but despite being simple and gushy, it still cuts to the heart with its questions about whether we really let God as close as we seem to claim we do (and from that perspective, I guess its inclusion on an EP called Closer sort of makes sense.) Synthesizers are the order of the day on Closer, so the band marries the electronic element provided by Lowell’s keyboards and and handclap-happy drum loop to the familiar acoustic guitar melody, with some sort of bells or a glockenspiel or whatever adding a little color in the background. It’s a cute remake, and the band is mostly faithful to the structure of the original, with Dan only changing his vocal melody a little bit here and there, but not to the point where those of us who have known the song for well over a decade can’t sing along.

4. Flood (New Rain)
Calm the storms that drench my eyes
And dry the streams still flowing
Casting down all waves of sin
And guilt that overthrow me…
Here’s where the band starts to push their luck by messing with a classic. You can probably know absolutely nothing about this band, and still stand a high chance of having heard this song’s original version, provided you ever listened to a modern rock radio station circa 1996. It’s a tough one to forget – Matt Odmark and Steve Mason’s acoustic guitar strumming and the tense, one-note chorus sung by all four guys made sure of it. What was most commendable about the original version was that it managed to be a credible rock song despite not using any electric guitars, and that it took listeners by surprise when a string section took over for the entire bridge. Here, the band has completely gutted the familiar acoustic guitar strumming for a more electrified approach, which might work in the same way that a few remixes and live renditions of the song worked in the past, if not for the fact that they changed the chord progression as well. Now it does this weird “up and down” sort of thing during the chorus that just feels plain wrong if you’re used to the song as it originally sounded. Dan seems to be following the melody line that the background vocals originally followed during the chorus, too, which I guess is actually closer to how the band usually sings it live, but unless you have a good ear for harmonizing, it’s going to throw you off when you try to sing along and realize Dan isn’t singing the same notes he used to be. I have to admit, it’s pretty amazing to think that the band could strip this song of its most noticeable characteristics, and still have it “work”, in a way that a lot of remixes and remakes of a classic song usually don’t because they forget what made the original so memorable. But still, I’d like this one better if I didn’t have the original to compare it to. I’m all for innovation, but this is one of those cases where it’s better not to mess with success.

5. Prisoner of Hope
Hide your face
Let the wind run out of breath, let the wind run out of breath
Make you bleed from the heart, and ache from the mind

The saints are singing in your funerals, strength for you to find…
This final song was apparently record for a film soundtrack of some sort – it has a theme of offering hope to an oppressed people, which gives it a character similar to “Light Gives Heat”. This might be one moment where, as much as I’m intrigued by all of the tooling around with synthesized sounds, I kind of wish they’d put the fancy equipment away and take a more organic approach – it just seems like it would resonate with the emotions a little more that way. The song opens strong with a slower guitar strum and a wash of empathetic vocals from Dan, but falters a bit when it fails to lead up to a strong chorus. My main problem here is that I have a hard time understanding, based on the beautiful but incomplete lyrics, how someone can be held prisoner by the concept of hope – hope seems to be the thing you’d lean on to get you out one day, not the thing that would oppress you and keep you down. it also feels a bit lazy when the wording gets changed slightly from “Prisoner of hope, it won’t be long now” to “Prisoner, I hope you carry on now”. It draws attention to the words “of” and “I”, and the fact that they can sound the same when you don’t enunciate well, which Dan seems to almost be depending on to make the slight change in phrasing work. I know it’s a really small nitpick, but it sticks out like a sore thumb when I listen to this song, so that makes it the weakest of the three new ones (but still no less worthwhile than a deep album cut like “Surprise” – a least favorite by Jars of Clay standards is usually still a good song by normal standards).

While I recommend checking out this EP, I do so with the caveat that you shouldn’t buy the physical CD unless you go to a Jars of Clay show or can otherwise pick it up in person. I attempted to buy it from their website, and was faced with a shipping cost higher than the $5 asking price for the CD! Not cool. I’d recommend purchasing a digital download instead.

I’m totally on board if the new Jars of Clay album is packed with songs that are fun and quirky like “Closer” and/or beautifully constructed and emotionally compelling like “Safe to Land”. They’ll probably hit several points in between and several others that I’m not expecting, because they tend to always surpass my expectations, even if I don’t realize it as first. I just hope that this new chapter in the band’s career doesn’t make too much of a habit of pointing back to the old days and trying to recreate them for nostalgia’s sake. That was then, this is now, and the band has improved so much since 1995 that I don’t want them to encourage fans to think those old days were better.

Closer $1.50
Safe to Land $2
Love Song for a Savior ’08 $1.50
Flood (New Rain) $1
Prisoner of Hope $1

Dan Haseltine: Lead vocals, tambourine, accordion, occasional percussion
Charlie Lowell: Piano, keyboards, organ, accordion, backing vocals
Steve Mason: Acoustic & electric guitars, lap steel, banjo, mandolin, backing vocals
Matt Odmark: Acoustic & electric guitars, banjo
Jeremy Lutito: Drums (tour only)
Gabe Rushavul: Bass (tour only)



Originally published on Epinions.com.

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