In Brief: It’s one of my favorite band’s lesser albums. The long fall back to realistic expectations is the hardest part.
You come to expect radical change if you’re a Jars of Clay fan. It happens almost like clockwork from one album to the next – unless you pay close attention to EPs and other work done in between proper albums, the stylistic shifts on a new batch of their songs are likely to take even their most long-time fans by surprise. You can know this and anticipate it, and still find that a new album takes a few listens to process. Perhaps 2002’s The Eleventh Hour was one exception, mostly being a revision of sonic ideas that worked for the quirky “Christian rock” band in the 90’s, and then there was a sustained folk/acoustic phase from 2003’s Furthermore and Who We Are Instead that lasted through 2005’s Redemption Songs. But there was no predicting their “return to rock”, rife with curveballs and exceptions to their established musical boundaries, that made 2006’s Good Monsters such a varied but delightful album. And after that, the gloves were off. They left their longtime label Essential Records, finally got around to releasing the holiday collection Christmas Songs, and nobody really knew what they’d try next. This was total creative freedom. A dangerous liberty in the hands of a lesser artist, but this was my favorite band. I trusted ’em.
Thank God for the brief glimpse of their new style that we got on last year’s Closer EP, or I’d have been somewhat unpleasantly shocked by their latest piece of work, entitled The Long Fall Back to Earth. Usually there’s a song or two on each new album that I can extract and say, “This would have worked on an earlier album” – it builds a bridge of sort to help fans across. There’s nothing like that here. This time around, the band went totally poppy, shining up their sound with retro synths like all the cool kids who bought Tears for Fears tapes in the 80’s but have only recently felt enabled to admit it due to the current music scene’s habit of reviving anything and everything from the childhood of a generation now grappling with mid-life crisis. But I’m not knocking the 80’s influence Nor would I go so far as to say that Jars of Clay has become the indie rock version of a new wave band. You can still hear the acoustic guitars here and there, and Dan Haseltine is too sensitive of a guy to try to adopt the whole “I’m not British but I’ll pretend I am while trying to act like a broken-hearted android” thing. Yet still, there’s a big leap being made here, because this is the first record where the band has relied more on the faculties of keyboard player Charlie Lowell than on the dual guitar talents of Steve Mason and Matt Odmark. Guitars are more of a supporting instrument here, and that’s going to be a tough sell if you became a fan of the band on the basis of their signature “Jars of Clay strum”. Nowadays, you can still hear the strum in the background here and there, occasionally munched up by computers along the way, but aside from a few tracks that have similarly edited electric guitar riffs to help guide them along, it’s really all about the “Jars of Clay loop”. And I don’t think that electronic instruments are any less credible or authentic than a good old six-string. That said, there’s a certain “lightness” to this record that makes it more difficult for the hooks to sink into my brain on many occasions. It’s not like I think this new style is any less creative than their most rock-oriented or most gentle, acoustic material. But there are several points where I feel like the band could have done more with it, especially considering that this is their first “regular album” that no record label bigwig has been in a position to revise. All creative decisions here were solely the responsibility of the band. You figure there’d be more boundary-breaking going on here.
I think that’s what’s weirding me about about Long Fall, actually. I’m not sure what I was expecting – I knew I didn’t want Good Monsters all over again, or any past album really, because I figured now was the time for them to really challenge their audience and go where their creative muses took them. In a way, I guess they did that – Jars of Clay has always had a very pop-oriented streak to them, even when playing hide-and-go-seek with their musical style. It was more a case of coming up with innovative ways to mix the conventions of folk, rock, and alternative pop music that didn’t speak the same trite language as other Christian bands. Despite this, they got tagged with the “youth group favorite” label early on, and they’ve had a tough time escaping that expectation even as they’ve matured well beyond the confines of that album several times over. Anyone who has paid attention to the lyrics throughout their history can generally tell that they’ve got a lot on their mind than your average Christian band. But there’s a certain watermark to most label-driven Christian music that sounds too safe, too boxed in, too perfect. Jars of Clay had mostly escaped this cliche by the time Who We Are Instead rolled around – there was something meatier there, and you could dig down into it and really feel the soul of what they were trying to say. So it’s darned odd to me that their first real statement as an indie band feels like a bit of a musical trip through Candyland. There’s no label to blame here (Essential is distributing the record, but had no say in the creative process whatsoever). The decisions made here were the band’s own.
For the most part, the group’s commitment to meaningful lyrics hasn’t changed. What I’ve come to respect about Jars of Clay over the years is that they’ve run the gamut between obvious “Love Song for a Savior” type stuff that is 100% unafraid to say “Jesus” and really cryptic Much Afraid-type stuff that leaves it to the listener to parse the poetry and figure out what it means to describe one’s faith and one’s struggles apart from the expected “Christian-ese” language. Now they’ve settled at a comfortable place where there’s no need to mask the theology behind their lyrics, but also no need to name-drop Jesus for brownie points if a song doesn’t warrant it. You’ll actually hear very few directly “religious” songs on this record, as most are concerned with the frailty of human relationships. Occasionally that translates to a love song that really needs to try a little harder to say something profound. But on more occasions, it translates into a thoughtful reflection on what it means to take risks, to put actions behind your words, to really forgive someone who has wronged you and mean it and not look back. It’s an album about grace – a character trait that implicitly comes from God, but that is explored here in terms of how we do or don’t offer it to our fellow human beings. It’s vulnerable underneath all the ear candy, and that makes it worthwhile even at times when I’m rather “meh” about the musical approach. And that sort of meaningful approach to the songwriting seems to be Jars of Clay’s one constant even when the instrumentation is up for grabs. They have a fairly strong conviction not to just phone it in like so many of the big names in CCM seem to do these days. That’s the one thing that’s OK to expect from them every time.
1. The Long Fall
Jars of Clay normally doesn’t do instrumental intros on their album (save for Christmas Songs), so this is a change of pace, a way to build up to the first “true song” on the album instead of jumping right into it. It immediately signals that this will be a collection of songs dominated by piano and keyboard, but its watery melody and slow dramatic build show that they put some thought into the composition of it. I could do without Dan singing the album title a few times in a song otherwise devoid of lyrics, but that’s a minor critique.
Hallelujah, we can finally see
How the bitterness was bruising all our skin
And we didn’t notice that grace had run so thin
‘Til we’re falling apart, and the cracks in our hearts let the truth sink in…
We segue into the first song without missing a beat, as little bits of shimmery guitar slip into the piano-dominated soundscape. It’s weird to Dan start off with the overtly spiritual proclamation “Hallelujah, we can finally hear” when I’m used to them easing into the “Christian language” more gradually, but that’s not a complaint, just an observation. What they’ve got here is a convincing, if somewhat obvious, song that pleads for peace, simply saying, “Lay your weapons down, there are no enemies in front of you.” It’s not so much about war or politics, but more of a thesis statement for the relational difficulties to be explored throughout the album. The quick backbeat, the luscious vocal breakdown in the bridge, and the straightforward, soaring guitar melody of the chorus are perhaps a bit more straightforward in terms of their hook value than I’d usually expect from Jars (they’re the sort of band that is catchy, but often in more unusual ways), so from my perspective, this song seems like low-hanging fruit compared to some of Jars’ most notable album openers. But it’s still pretty good.
3. Two Hands
I have a broken disposition
I am a liar who thirsts for the truth
And while I ache for faith to hold me
I need to feel the scars and see the proof…
A first single can very easily give the wrong impression of an album – this was true for me with “I Need You” and “Show You Love” back in the day, and when I caught wind of the mixed responses Jars fans were giving upon hearing this song, I decided to hold off and hear it for the first time within the context of the album. Sure enough, it’s got a lot of things that would easily grab Christian radio’s attention – the upfront, chimey keyboard intro, the confessional/repentant lyrics that clearly state their conclusion in the chorus, and an overall “worship song” sort of feel. I could see why this might cause some cnsternation among an audience who expects more than typical CCM from this band. To be fair, the band is making a thoughtful attempt to explore our tendency to praise God one minute and then deny Him the next through its analogy of our two hands doing very different things – it’s musically comfortable but the lyrics do ask the Christian listener to be challenged for a brief minute. While this definitely plays better with the neighboring songs to help give it context, it still suffers from taking the too-obvious approach to chart-topping status. The strong emphasis on the hands being “lifted high” to provide to main hook does make it a little easier to ignore the question of what the uncooperative hand is doing and why and whether we can admit we all have this struggle in common. And there’s a lot of “na na” stuff thrown in near the end that just seems gratuitous. I don’t hate the song, but the fact that I have to be on the defensive about it seems to indicate that Jars of Clay is on shakier ground, artistically speaking, than they have been on past albums. This really shouldn’t be the first thing that a potential new fan on the fence gets to hear from this album.
We shatter devices, enter the stage
We start masquerading, we rattle the cage
We’ll face every search light in places we hide
And dress up for Eden, the gates open wide…
Now this is more like it. I think this one’ll be agreeable to a lot of Jars of Clay fans… for some of ’em ’cause it brings the RAWK factor, and for folks like me, because there’s a better instrumental dynamic, what with Steve’s grumbly guitar riff playing off of Charlie’s synth riff. (Can synthesizers “riff”? I suggest that they can.) Steve’s got that whole “loose nut rattling around inside my guitar which sounds really awesome with reverb” thing that U2 perfected in the 80’s, and to be honest, this song walks a fine line between U2 homage and U2 ripoff. (U2 mostly used synths to make themselves sound ironic. That’s how Jars narrowly escapes the plagiarism charge.) Dan’s got a lot more force behind his voice here – it’s the kind of “battle cry” song that’s meant to be sung loudly and confidently, as he proposes that Heaven is here and now, “glowing on the inside”. (It’s also “growing” and “showing” on the inside. Alright, so these are not some of his most creative rhymes.) It’s something that sneaks into empty corners, that infiltrates the world one person at a time, and yet something that is a bold, loud truth and not a hidden secret. That’s the attitude that the song portrays. And I enjoy it for that.
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?
This was our first introduction to the new Jars of Clay sound last summer, and one might say it’s the most electronic-dominated song on the new album, so basically they went with the geekiest of their new compositions to get the fans adjusted early on. I reviewed it when the EP came out and there’s not much new to say here, other than the fact that the band tacked a punchy intro onto it rather than starting off immediately with the verse as the EP version does. For those who know nothing about the EP, I’ll just say that it’s a big video game soundtrack brought to life (like from the old days of MIDI sounds), with an array of intentionally goofy analogies, all of which aim to illustrate the communication gap between two people who wish loving each other wasn’t so complicated. You’ll be singing along in no time even if little of it makes any sense to you.
6. 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…
The second new track from last summer’s EP appears here in the same sequence that it originally did, a segue which works well, since this one picks up on a more serious note with its attempt to describe the weariness of a graceless relationship. I gushed about this one plenty when I reviewed Closer, and I’m happy to note they haven’t changed a single thing in the mix for the album version – it’s the same caustious, heart-rendingly beautiful song that it was when we first heard it. It might be cheating to say that this is my favorite song on the album when I’ve had so much more time to adjust to it, but to be fair, this one hit me right away to begin with, and it carried just as much force as the first time I really sat down and took notice of past epics like “Silence” or “Lesser Things” or, dare I say it, “Worlds Apart”. The fact that it’s full of ambient programming and weary minor-key haze and so forth doesn’t reduce its authenticity at all – the band knows how to build cautiously and dramatically on the uneasy foundation they’ve laid, using sweet backing vocals and a haunting melody to drive home their analogy of a plane waiting to either get clearance for landing or run out of gas and crash, whichever comes first.
We watch television, but the sound is something else
Just a song played against the drama, so the hurt is never felt
I take in the war-fires, and I’m chilled by the current events
It’s so hopeless, but there’s a pop song in my head…
This, my favorite of the songs that were 100% new to me on first listen to the new album, is a deceptive, subtle, ironic little piece of work. It’s mood is nothing but sincere, and yet it’s a song about apathy and drowning out the world. The musical mood is set on “acoustic sensitive”, and yet there’s the pop and click of a very light programmed beat and some other little sonic nuggets that play best when listened to using… you guessed it, headphones. The song wants you to wear your headphones, and yet it wants you to take them off. It’s a pop song, and yet it decries the fact that video footage of the world’s suffering becomes a whole lot easier to swallow (and consequently not to be disturbed by to the point of taking action) when it’s got a poppy soundtrack to it. In that sense, it’s kind of like Switchfoot‘s “Adding to the Noise”, but much less jerky and insistent – it quietly pleads with you to turn off the iPod and face the awkward silence between you and your neighbor for a second. I suppose it’s a little easier to face when your neighbor happens to be Katie Herzig, the woman with the small but endearing voice who shows up to sing BGV’s here. (Seriously, that girl gets around, and I think I should owe her a review of her own work at some point soon.)
8. Don’t Stop
My recurring dream of you
Starlight in your eyes and music everywhere
I am dancing close to you
There are no days or nights we’ve left behind…
Aw, man. Why’d you have to go and ruin my bliss with an inane pop song? I can’t hate this one, I guess, but I have trouble loving it due to its beat and melody which are insistently bouncy, yet too stilted to really take off. The lyrics rank among the most unoriginal fluff that Jars of Clay has ever written – not offensive, but certainly too harmless to matter. I can see something important going on behind the cliches – a story of a man who wants to restore his relationship with his wife (or child, perhaps?) back to the point of having her think the world of him, but knowing he’s made her cry enough times along the way that this will be a difficult task. I can see the heart of it. But it needs more explanation and less “Ba ba da ba”. Seriously, leave the nonsense syllables to lesser bands – they don’t suit you guys well.
9. Boys (Lesson One)
In time, to wonder where the days have gone
In time, to be old enough to wish that you were young
When good things are unraveling, bad things come undone
You weather love, and lose your innocence…
Now this is cute. A bit sugar-coated on the musical side of things, since it’s almost completely made up of synthesized clicks and whirrs and fake strings and such (Steve or Matt might be picking at an acoustic guitar in the background there somewhere), but it’s a heartfelt song written to the collective male children of the band members, using the framework of a lesson taught by fathers who love them but don’t want to lie to them. I like it when songs written for kids can speak to the rest of us, because they resonate with truths we know we’ve had to face as we grow older. Lots of good observations here, like the fact that there are “right ways to fight” (instead of just saying to get along with everybody like it’s the easiest thing ever) and that kids can’t wait to grow up often end up wishing they were young again once they do. It’s not easy for a parent to communicate, “I’ve been where you’re going” without it sounding like an old, tired “When I was your age” sort of tirade. But they pull off exactly that.
We hide on our knees in silence
Maybe God doesn’t hear at all
And the wait overtakes the violence
And we watch as the giants fall
We’re not gonna let it end this way…
This’ll be the one that the youth groups love, I think. By way of a little studio processing, a skipping acoustic guitar provides an edgy backbeat over which Dan sings of a hopeless feeling that we all know is incongruous with the Chrsitian faith, and yet which we all have to admit at some point we’ve identified with at various stages of our faith. The conclusion may be almost too simple – “We need a hero to save us from ourselves” – but I say if you’re gonna write a song about heroes, the melody had better be pretty darn heroic, and they’ve got that in spades here. You can practically see the noble soldier du jour riding in on his horse when that chorus kicks in. I like it quite a bit, even if I wish a little more thought had been put into the lead-up from the problem to the solution. It’ll be great fun in concert.
11. Scenic Route
We’re just sitting like novels we’ve picked up but never read through
You think you know my ending, I think I know yours, too
You see, nowhere in these old conversations is there anything new…
This would be the song on the album that is the most “me”. It’s a bit of a subtle artistic statement for the band, a hidden explanation for those willing to look for it, a key to the never-ending questions about why this band has to be so annoyingly exploratory when they could just repeat their successes over and over and rack up easy hits. It’s all about the journey, not the destination, dummy. The band communicates that beautifully here, with an upbeat, “road-trippy” sort of song that takes its time to get going over the course of a long, moody synth intro, which brings a neat little payoff when the verse finally arrives and switches the song from minor to major key. “I’m trying to drag this out”, Dan sings with a wink and a nudge to those who are going to grumble about the song’s six-minute length and refuse to see the point of it all. “I know we could get there much faster if we wanted to.” Just as on a good road trip, sometimes the best moments are to be had in the detours, the points that don’t lie directly between the start and the finish. Christian music is largely intolerant of this sort of thing – and trust me, by indie rock standards, this ain’t particularly artsy. But it’s enough to have some reviewers claiming ridiculous things like “this song has no hook” and whatnot. Apparently, to some ears, the rootsy sound of that bozouki (or whatever that exotically twangy instrument is) married to that synthetic backbeat isn’t the same Heaven on Earth that it is to mine. Nor can some ears find anything interesting about Steve’s little backmasked vocal interlude or Dan’s vamping toward the end of the song. Their loss, I guess. As with all road trips, your mileage may vary.
12. There Might Be a Light
And it’s just the way things go
When you love someone and they don’t know
Sparks and hearts, they have to glow
They just glow, they just glow…
It’s truly a shame that the unexpected one-two punch from the drums that ends the “Scenic Route” is wasted on a transition into what is easily the album’s worst song… in fact, it’s one of the worst original songs that Jars of Clay has ever seen fit to record for an album. My gripe is similar here to what it was regarding “Don’t Stop”, except now the pacing is more mundane, more middle-of-the-road pop instead of punchy electronic pop, so we can’t rely on much of a hook to distract us. I get that Dan’s back in sensitive mode, trying to relate to a guy who is trying to woo a girl but too shy to know how to go about it, as he sings from that lovelorn sucker’s point of view, pleading for the dim light inside her heart to come on. What will make it come on? I don’t know, but assuredly it will “come on, come on, come on, come on soon”. Seriously, that’s more or less the hook here. I find myself wanting to strangle Dan by about the sixteenth “come on”. (Not really. Then he wouldn’t be able to sing the good songs. I’m just saying “Wow, this song sure is irritating.”) It kicks up a bit for the bridge, which brings in a light touch of Chicago (thanks for pointing that out, ardent fans on the Jarchives boards who enjoy this song for some strange reason!) as it utilizes a horn section to tug at the old heartstrings. But as Dan pines, “There is no delusion, to you I don’t exist”, I’m reminded of Chicago for other reasons – like the way that a college roommate would put two pr three sad-sack Chicago songs on repeat whenever he was bummed about a girl and felt the need to wallow in it for a while. So yeah, that’s not exactly a flattering comparison.
13. Forgive Me
For every town there is a crier
Like a thief in every choir
And when I think of the mistakes I’ve made
All my transgressions on a big parade…
A bit of staccato guitar riffing tries to save this song from the “candyland” sound created by its persistent cutesy synth bells. I’m not sure if it works, because this one’s pretty docile for what’s supposed to be an uptempo song about forgiveness. But in some ways, there’s a bit of release here, as Dan admits to feeling remorse over time wasted waiting for the other person to apologize. That’s the tough thing about forgiveness – Christians are taught to do it, but when hurts stick for long enough, forgiveness doesn’t always guarantee an ability to mend the friendship. That question, “Have I lost you anyway?”, really resonates if you’ve ever found out what it’s like to finally let go of hurts and find yourself willing to let a person back in, only for them to balk at the concept of being friends, as if only barely able to get to the point of not hating you and preferring to end up as vaguely acquainted strangers where there were once good friends. I can admire the lyrics, so I’ll give ’em points for this one even though the music’s just OK.
One flag left to burn, one country to fall
One soul to pour out, one love to catch all…
For all of their unpredictability, Jars of Clay can usually be counted on to end an album on a reflective note – the relatively upbeat “The Edge of Water” and their moody take on “They Will Know We Are Christians” are pretty much the only times I can think of when they’ve thrown us a curveball at the very end. Until this oddball track, which seems to want to be the trip-hop equivalent of “Frail” as it matches a pop-and-clap rhythm track to a delicate acoustic guitar figure that loops about pensively during much of the song. The lyrics are plenty upbeat, ending the album on a hopeful note by describing the inherent risk of unconditional love – “No mountains to climb, no papers to sign. Offer your heart, I’ve given you mine.” It’s part awwwww and part ridiculously mushy. My biggest complaint is that it’s just plain repetitive, with only one section that can really be described as a “verse” and a chorus which changes slightly over its few repetitions. The lyrics drop out completely about halfway through, and then the band merely meditates on that reflective guitar melody for the better part of three minutes, synth chords chiming in here and there, but with no real build toward a climax and gradual comedown like we heard in “Frail”. (It’s probably not meant to be anything like what I’m comparing it to, but when songs are going to repeat musical passages, there needs to be some notable change in dynamic along the way to keep it interesting, which this song sorely lacks.) There’s a subtle reliance on vocal melody here which I do appreciate – the four guys sound honestly great when they harmonize together, and it’s those soothing harmonies that take us out when the music finally falls away at the end. Great note to end an album on – I just wish they’d figured out a more scenic route from a good start to a good ending in this one.
I can’t help but wonder if this album (which, at fourteen tracks and nearly an hour’s worth of music, is long by Jars of Clay standards) would have been better for it if they trimmed the fat and discarded a few of the lesser songs. The tricky part there is that there seems to be no universal concensus among fans regarding which songs are the most essential. I suppose that’s nothing new given the variance of song styles shown on past albums, but it’s particularly baffling here since I can’t even figure out what the obvious high marks are that the band will want to hit in concert. I’m not even sure if it’ll be a terribly exciting album to hear live, outside of a few punchier tracks (which is startling to realize, since I looked forward to hearing even the most downbeat moments from Good Monsters live). It’s more of a record to put on and let your cares melt away, rather than something to pump up a crowd with. I’m sure the band’ll work something out to kick up the live arrangements. In any event, The Long Fall is a good album made by a band for which the descriptor “good” is perhaps slightly disappointing. It’s worth hearing if you like the band, and worth checking out in comparison to most of the drivel that Christian radio’s gonna throw at you. But if you’re trying to make up your mind about whether Jars of Clay is your cup o’ tea, you might want to start by sipping from a different cup (meaning just about any of their older albums).
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Long Fall $.50
Two Hands $.50
Safe to Land $2
Don’t Stop $0
Boys (Lesson One) $1
Scenic Route $2
There Might Be a Light -$.50
Forgive Me $1
Dan Haseltine: Lead vocals, percussion, melodica
Charlie Lowell: Piano, keyboards, backing vocals
Steve Mason: Acoustic and electric guitars, bass, backing vocals
Matt Odmark: Acoustic and electric guitars, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.