In Brief: Better than most “worship albums” on the market these days, but not as good as anyof Jars of Clay’s previous albums. 3.5 stars.
Jars of Clay has been my favorite band for about a decade and a half now. Nearly everything they put out, I’ll either rave about right away, or come to realize the subtle beauty of it later. Despite the near-constant shifting of styles and a few head-scratching moments on several of their albums, I’ve never felt “let down” by this band, or at least, not once I fully digested and appreciated an album of all-new material from the group. But there’s a first time for everything, I suppose. The Shelter might be that first time.
Contemporary worship music has been one of my least favorite genres for the better part of a decade now. Nearly every new worship album that hits the Christian music market, I’ll either pounce on it and decry its derivative nature right away, or else I’ll give a trusted artist a chance when they take a stab at writing songs for a group of people to sing on a Sunday morning, and end up feeling like it’s nowhere near their best work. I can name a few exceptions where the intersection of modern, even artistic music has been successfully matched with worshipful sentiments. But unlike a lot of the consumers who buy this stuff, I’ve never felt compelled to proclaim a worship album is better than it is just because it was recorded by a favorite artist or just because I thought the intent behind it was admirable. If music made with the loftiest of goals – to aid believers in the worship of their King – comes across as mediocre and uninspired, I’m not afraid to call it with it is. Until now. The Shelter is an album that it kind of pains me to criticize.
Seems weird to have those two paragraphs opening the same review, doesn’t it? That’s because the day has finally come when Jars of Clay has decided to leave their stamp on the “modern worship” genre. Sort of. You see, the desire for this band to release such an album dates pretty far back – much farther back than the band members themselves expressed any interest in doing it. The first I caught wind of it was in 2002, when the band’s former label, Essential Records, wanted a worship album from the band. They declined, accepting the request that they include kind of “worship-y” song called “I Need You” as a last-minute addition to The Eleventh Hour, to serve as a radio single. The band was actually interested in putting out a Christmas album at the time. The label said no. Then they decided that their response to the modern worship trend should be to record a folksy album full of re-worked hymns. This wasn’t trendy, so the label showed a distinct lack of interest (and you can read all about the drama in more detail in my review of Redemption Songs). The band managed to get the record out anyway, with Essential’s grudging support. A few years later, the band’s contract with the label was finally up, so they starting recording material independently for their own label, Gray Matters, resulting in that long-awaited Christmas album (2007’s Christmas Songs), and then surprisingly, one of their poppiest and most accessible discs yet (2009’s The Long Fall Back to Earth). What would this band do next with their indie status? The answer, apparently, was to record that worship album.
I was actually intrigued by the idea of The Shelter when I first read about it. The members of the band really took the idea to heart that unity among believers is actually a significant aspect of worship. Christians are unfortunately known for a lot of bickering and infighting. A lot of judgment, too. We have small splinters of schisms of sects that have split off over the ages because someone didn’t like the way someone else had church. Or because they disagreed on minor theological points. Not that these debates aren’t worth having, but it sure seems awfully hypocritical to stand in our pews every Sunday singing about how great God’s mercy is and how God loves us so much, when we don’t love each other so much. Worse still, this lack of love isolates us. We don’t follow Christ’s example of taking up each other’s burdens. We don’t entrust others with our own burdens. We face the world as if “me and God in a vacuum” is all that matters, and I suspect we let ourselves live with some pretty strange ideas about who God is due to only surrounding ourselves with people who only see Him more or less the same way. These are thoughts that come to my mind as I listen to the songs Jars of Clay wrote after being genuinely convicted on this issue. “It is in the shelter of each other that the people live”, goes the proverb that inspired the album’s title. It’s nothing less than a worthy and inspired topic on which to theme a collection of spiritual songs. And it’s no coincidence that Redemption Songs ended with the band’s haunting take on “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love”. This issue’s probably been bugging them for a while.
Everything I’ve said in the last paragraph probably sounds like high praise. It is. I thoroughly admire the intent of this album. To a lot of CCM consumers, that’s enough. Put an admirable idea, or at least a touching testimony, behind an album, and there’s almost no need to evaluate its actual contents (at least, not beyond superficial concerns of whether the music’s catchy and name-drops God/Jesus a lot). That’s an automatic A for a lot of people. Combine that with the general confusion some listeners have expressed over the “Christian-ness” of a few of Jars of Clay’s albums (they’ve always discussed matters of faith, but in more oblique terms on some of their late 90’s/early 00’s material) and the desire for them to return to a more straightforwardly Christian-ese way of expressing themselves (you knows, those folks that just can’t let the first album go), and you can see why a project like The Shelter would have some folks welcoming the band back into the fold. They never left, of course. They just employ different styles of songwriting to speak to the Church vs. speaking to people who perhaps don’t get the language and subculture of the Church. The Shelter is clearly aimed at the Church, which is a good thing. But language-wise, they can’t hide behind a claim that this is an old hymn they’re covering when it becomes obvious that they’re leaning on a few tired lyrical cliches that have been expressed before, and better, by other CCM songwriters. That’s strike one.
Strike two is that the band seems to suddenly be overly conscious of their need to make the songs accessible to the Church. While Jars of Clay has always been a band with a keen sense of what makes a song catchy, even when it’s buried under odd quirks (If I Left the Zoo) or played off as a melancholy lament (Much Afraid) or an earthier, hybrid form of pop and folk (Who We Are Instead), they seem to be falling victim to the obvious approach of “Repeat this anthemic line four times and it makes a huge chorus” much more than they did with the occasional song on those older albums. Their songs have also been frequently characterized by inventive guitar parts, be it the classic “Jars of Clay strum” of their early material or some of the zippy riffing heard on Good Monsters‘ rockier numbers. Here, things have reverted to the simple, straightforward drive of an electric guitar on many occasions, with uninspired drum programming as well. That’s not to say that the entirety of The Shelter is an uninspired performance, but there are several occasions where I genuinely miss this band’s trademark quirkiness. Even when the band was at their most accessible to their CCM market, back on their self-titled debut, they stood out for being different than their contemporaries. Here, they sound like they’ve almost fully absorbed the sounds of their contemporaries – and when some of said contemporaries are the voices heard most often on the extremely limited playlists of Christian radio here in 2010, that’s a little distressing.
Those voices, of course, are more than just an influence. They’re clear and present on nearly every track of this album. From an idealistic standpoint, it makes sense. Recording an album extolling the virtues of community doesn’t make much sense if you do it in isolation. So the band enlisted the help of, oh, about twelve of their musical colleagues to sing, co-write, or perform other duties on ten of these eleven songs. In a few cases, this leads to surprising, dream team duets that remind me of some of the better material from the City on a Hill series (which Jars of Clay participated in at around the turn of the century). In most cases, though, I feel like names were drawn out of a hat because certain vocalists were on Essential’s roster, and given that Essential got back the privilege of at least distributing the band’s records with The Long Fall Back to Earth, I can’t help but wonder if the band got a few notes from the network on how to make this one make some more money for the label. (It’s like an abusive relationship. You think you’re out, but they subtly draw you back in.) Maybe I’m just making excuses here so that I won’t have to blame my favorite band for actually hanging out with such dull influences. Whoever’s fault it is, there are a few too many middle-of-the-road participants here for comfort. Maybe that sounds like elitism on my part (which would be totally contrary to the spirit of this album), but it’s not that. It’s that an album which sets out to make a statement like this shouldn’t be hampered by moments where the band more or less resembles so much else of what Christian radio’s already broadcasting. Love ’em or hate ’em, this band’s always made their best attempt to be unique. Being part of a community shouldn’t have to mean losing your own voice. (And if you think I’m being unnecessarily harsh due to unrealistically high expectations, I should point out that even my sweet, non-jaded, see-the-silver-lining-in-everything wife, upon first hearing the album, muttered in confusion: “This is supposed to be Jars of Clay?”)
But there are some shining moments where I can still hear the band’s own voice loud and clear, and even a few where the guests genuinely help to put a unique spin a song that wouldn’t have been the same with the band performing it themselves. (Side note: I have no idea how touring to support this thing is gonna work out.) There’s a run of songs at the end that, while they might not quite stand out as classics on par with some of the band’s most-loved material, are quite memorable and set the bar a bit higher. And to be fair, even the most mediocre songs here aren’t as frustrating to listen to as a doozy of a bad lyric like The Long Fall‘s “There Might Be a Light”. So while I might express some dismay here at my favorite band losing a bit of their identity amidst the mostly B-list star power, I still think that, despite it being possibly the band’s worst album, the overall balance comes out above average. It’s only “bad” in comparison to what we’ve come to expect from Jars of Clay after all these years.
1. Small Rebellions
I feel like I’ve heard this intro before – driving bass, steady guitar strum, gradual build to an arena-ready chorus… not that it’s a direct copy of any one thing, but there are times when I feel like this is Jars of Clay’s attempt to put their own spin on attempts to make worship music sound as grand as U2 dating back as far as… well, U2 themselves. Lots of bands I like have done this, and many more that I dislike. It’s not a terrible thing – Charlie Lowell throws in enough synthesized keyboard stuff to leave a small hint of Jars’ quirkiness present in the song. And the opening words of the album are more about praying that God would motivate people to action than you’d hear in something typically called a worship song. “God of the break and shatter/Hearts in every form still matter”, Dan Haseltine sings in the opening verse. It’s certainly a well-meaning song, asking God to put us out there and nudge us to act selflessly. But a quick read of the chorus reveals that it is a stone’s throw away from being a bumper sticker slogan: “Give us days to be filled with small rebellions/Senseless, brutal acts of kindness from us all/If we stand against the fear and firm foundation/Push against the current and the fall.” What, nothing in there about random acts of beauty? CCM pop singer Brandon Heath (I like to pronounce it “Blandon”, actually) shows up to sing a comparatively bland, repetitive bridge, simply saying “We will never walk alone again”. I fail to see why Jars of Clay keeps on collaborating with this guy. He has yet to do anything that interests me. His voice isn’t even that different from Dan’s, so I wouldn’t even realize he was here if not for the “Featuring” tagline in nearly every song title on this album.
2. Call My Name
There’s a modern worship band called Starfield that I kind of felt was imitating Jars a bit when I reviewed their first album back in 2004. This mid-tempo, keyboard-heavy number kind of sounds like Jars of Clay imitating Starfield’s imitation of them. But then, I think a lot of bands over the years have wanted to be Jars of Clay, but with more direct “worship” lyrics, so it’s not surprising that Jars attempting a worship album would resemble any number of those bands. It seems especially weird at this point to be plodding along on a rather dry guitar strum with glistening keyboards and a fully programmed rhythm. It takes a lot of the oomph out of the song, and it’s too early in the album for stuff like that. We get the first of many one-line, repetitive choruses here, and truth be told, I’m not finding much about the lyrics here that stands out from the ordinary. The guest vocalists this time around are Christian country singer Thad Cockrell and Catholic vocalist Audrey Assad. Thad mostly provides harmony vocals, while Audrey elevates the song briefly to lovelier territory with her reflective bridge. I don’t mind pretty voices, but they deserve better songs to showcase them.
3. We Will Follow
This song gets revved up immediately, a lot like “Revolution” with its driving electric guitar and “Work” with its constant drum pounding, but nowhere as ragged and cool as “Revolution” or “Work”. Sometimes it works to throw all manner of bells and orchestral flourishes at a song to try to make it a huge anthem. This isn’t one of those times. It doesn’t immediately stand out as a bad move, but the song’s generic nature begins to overshadow its energy as the chorus approach – “Where you lead us, we will follow!” cried out again and again by a chorus of eager voices (including Michael and Lisa Gungor from their eponymous worship band, Gungor). The melodic lift is almost exactly the same as the one used in “Small Rebellions”, and while a band copying themselves is one thing, a band copying themselves from two tracks earlier is quite another. I’m sure none of these complaints will register with fans who just want to hear Jars of Clay rock again and have one of those melodies that soars up to the heavens, that you can lift your hands to. It’s an obvious euphoric sing-along moment for the band’s concerts. But it doesn’t do much for me that the band hasn’t done better elsewhere.
4. Eyes Wide Open
Scaling back the gloss a bit turns out to pay off in huge dividends when the band breaks out this lovely acoustic number. It’s got the highest guest quotient of any track on the album, including the powerful southern drawl of Third Day‘s Mac Powell, the weird but warmly familiar voice of Caedmon’s Call‘s Derek Webb, and – news flash – the first official recorded work of Burlap to Cashmere in over a decade. They could have brought in Steven Delopoulos alone just to add his warm, Cat Stevens-homaging tones and his nimble-fingered guitar work to the track (which he does), but the use of his band gives the track more of a lively, rhythmic fill, and a brief but glorious moment of Spanish guitar goodness. Man, did I miss these guys. It’s not just the star power that makes this song work – it’s the vocal interplay between Dan, Mac, Derek, and Steven that keeps the chorus from feeling stale and repetitive, and the eager prayer that the music expresses so warmly and organically – to make sure we’re always aware of the needs of others, open to sharing their burdens, willing to try to love them the way Jesus would. This is the rare case where the guest artists elevate the work rather than just feeling like nice voices who stick their heads into cardboard cutouts, do their job, get paid, and go home. it’s the best track on the album and one of the best in the Jars of Clay discography.
5. The Shelter
More of a moody guitar intro leads this one off – and more plodding programming. These guys have done so much better stuff with programming in the past – they practically wrote the book on how to mix sequenced and acoustic sounds on their debut record, so I don’t know why they’d leave the production on auto-pilot here. This is a title track that sounds like it’s making an earnest attempt to be compelling, encouraging people that “We will never walk alone”, which we already heard Blandon Heath tell us in the album’s opening track – and oh look, there he is again in this one. Audrey Assad’s back again, adding a nice enough counterpoint to Dan’s lead vocals. But the guest vocalists present can’t overcome the faceless, dry presentation of the choral backing vocals that repeat the chorus of the song again and again – nice enough harmonies, but they just seem emotionless to me. There’s one more voice here – probably one of the biggest names to participate in the project as far as the CCM ghetto is concerned. Toby Mac shows up to essentially play the role of hype man. He sounds like he’s making a half-hearted attempt to add some sort of watered-down reggae spice to the track with his interjections of “OH! Oh-oh.” after the chorus. He might echo the occasional vocal line or two. He and Dan seem to try to be improvising on the repetitive chorus, but it doesn’t help much. What makes me laugh is that other critics have called Toby’s contribution “tasteful”. I take that to mean, “Well, at least he’s not hamming it up with some corny rap verse that mentions doo-doo.” Indeed, let us all be thankful for this.
6. Out of My Hands
Lead single time! They chose a song with Leigh Nash on backing vocals, and she and Dan together can do no wrong. Right? I mean, “With Every Breath” was quite lovely on the first City on a Hill, then came the country-rock duet “Mirrors & Smoke” on Good Monsters, then Dan repaid the favor on a delicious rendition of “Silent Night” for Sixpence None the Richer‘s Christmas album. How could they possibly screw up a fourth collaboration? Well, by basing it around plodding drums and keyboards, for one thing. For another, Leigh doesn’t even come in until the second chorus, and for the first part of the song, they’ve pulled another voice from the ranks of CCM radio-friendly Blandsville – Mike Donehey of the group Tenth Avenue North. The song actually starts to unfold into a not-too-shabby declaration of total surrender to God once it gets going, but it drags quite a bit in the process of getting there. Hey look, I’m not saying it’s bad to write a song that admits our salvation is all God’s work and none of ours. That’s pretty much the cornerstone of the Christian faith. But I’m used to Jars of Clay addressing such subjects with a more interesting vocabulary than this. What they’ve come up with here gives me the passive, “I don’t love it, but I wouldn’t change the station if it came on” reaction that I’d get to the average lead single from the trying-too-hard-not-to-offend debut of some other fresh face destined for the Christian bookstore bargain bin in a year or two.
7. No Greater Love
This is the only track on the album that the members of Jars of Clay take on all by themselves. It’s another straight-ahead, driving rock track – once again, not bad, but not sounding distinctively Jars-like in any way. It’s all glistening with Charlie’s keyboards and synths, and poor Steve Mason and Matt Odmark must be bored to tears with the stale power chords that he’s resigned to in order to keep this wall of sound moving forward. Lines repeated quite a bit here are “Show me the beauty of a life” and “No great love, and You say there’s no greater love.” Another song that could have a compelling message behind it makes the mistake of distilling that message down to a few minimal thoughts. I want the song to really illustrate the beauty of a life that we might otherwise overlook. Don’t just tell me something’s important, dangit – illustrate why! (Not that I don’t appreciate the sentiment, but one of my biggest pet peeves about Christian music is how it didactically just says “This is the truth” rather than demonstrating how that’s been shown to be true in the life of the person singing about it.) Nice enough chord progression, I guess, but that isn’t enough to make a song stand out. The worst part about this one is that I can’t blame some other bland CCM singer for it. This one’s all the band’s fault, no matter how I might try to spin it.
8. Run in the Night
This song is an interesting construction – intentionally subdued for the first several minutes, thankfully breaking from the “little verse, big chorus” formula for once and just letting a quiet meditation be what it needs to be. That’s the first part of the song, anyway – you can hear the hint of a driving beat in the keyboards and other electronic sounds that dominate the landscape, but it’s a few minutes in before the rhythm really takes over the song. Without having to change the pace of it, the overall movement of the song gradually, beautifully builds as the band meditates on Psalm 27. It’s because I appreciate the restraint and then the eventual release that this song stands out from the more poppy approach that most of The Shelter takes. That said, due to its five minute length and its long coda, it repeats its single-line chorus – “For by You I can run in the night” – for what seems like quite a long time. Thad Cockrell’s on backing vocals again, but I’m not sure what he adds to the song that would be much difference than the backing vocals often contributed to the band’s songs by Steve Mason.
9. Lay It Down
The most aggressively rocking track on the album shows up here – it can’t be a coincidence that David Crowder is involved in this one, as the speedy drumming and comparatively more fiery guitar work remind me of some of his band’s more epic moments. (Crowder is one of those worship leaders who strikes a good balance between all-out fun and more somber reflection, and also between lyrical simplicity and a much deeper thought process that goes into most of his band’s albums. A good role model for any aspiring worship band to learn from.) The song is more confrontational toward Christians who seem like they want to appear to have their stuff together, basically asking them if they got the lesson learned in “Out of My Hands” since we can all be tempted at times to act like it’s on us to do the work of making ourselves good and clean again. “Why carry on our own what’s coming to all men?” the bold chorus asks. “Why drag your bag of bones to hell and back again?” Why do we try to act like we don’t need any help, or have problems in need of fixing? It’s kind of the opposite side of “Eyes Wide Open” – there, the band prayed that our hearts would be open to the needs of others. Here they’re saying that in a community, we have to be willing to share our own burdens and not act like we’re above having genuine needs. I like the symmetry between these two sentiments. Crowder’s influence is heard here in the instrumental performance while his vocals are mostly buried behind those of Dan and guest singer Dawn Michele, lead singer of Fireflight. Dawn’s appearance is similar to Mac’s in that she’s a good vocalist from a rather dull group, so she’s put to better use here than in her own band.
10. Love Will Find Us
Anything Sara Groves lends her pen to will generally be reasonably classy and thoughtful. (I should have made that comment about the previous track, since confusingly, Groves co-wrote that one, but sings on this one.) I go back and forth on how much I actually like Sara’s music, but she’s got a lovely voice when she keeps it under control. She sounds sweet as ever in this moody, sprawling, minor-key song that basically aims to be the emotional climax of the album. Catholic worship leader Matt Maher also contributes – the three voices work quite well together, and musically, this is far more interesting than anything I can recall of Maher’s solo work. It might just be my personal inclination toward melancholy tunes that draws me to this one – I’m guessing it’ll be a dark horse that most fans overlook. But I love the way that the melody sways and zigzags throughout this one. The lyrics, while simplistic in their declaration that God will find the lonely, orphaned hearts and lead them home, are effective, and the chorus avoids the “repeated line” curse, looping enough times to become familiar but ramping up the intensity into a brief but satisfying coda before fading away in a lovely cloud of acoustic guitar and mandolin. I’m still not sure if this sounds like a Jars of Clay song per se, but as a collaborative effort, I think it achieves the goal that some of the other tracks on this album failed to.
I don’t really care much for Amy Grant. She’s still one of the biggest names in Christian music, despite being comparatively inactive for the better part of the last decade. But I’ve always found her work to be a bit overly eager and not quite deep enough to merit the attention she gets when she does actually surface with a new project. So it’s quite a surprise that her collaboration with Jars turns out to be one of my favorite moments on the album. It’s actually a subdued moment for Amy, as she’s providing a simple but lovely harmony vocal to Dan’s exhortation – “Go into the world, showing how much He loves you.” What makes the track a real winner is the intimate , crystalline acoustic melody that drives it – it’s the perfect comedown after the previous track’s climax. When I hear those opening chords, I think of quiet moments far removed from the foreground of safe CCM pop music – comparisons to some of Iron & Wine‘s gentler moments wouldn’t be out of line. At just shy of three minutes, the track doesn’t overstay its welcome – I actually wouldn’t mind if it ran a tad longer.
The selection of Amy as a meek but effective voice to help close out the album – as well as some more inspired choices like the inclusion of David Crowder, Derek Webb, or Burlap to Cashmere – indicates the true heart of this album. Some of these folks are better known for their time spent outside the walls of the Church, trying to love whoever will show up to listen (your mileage may vary on Grant’s effectiveness, but there’s something powerful about hearing the worlds “Go into the world” from someone who tried to do that and got her hand slapped by the believers who formerly supported her for doing it). Then you have their folks who have tried to use their music not just to comfort and provide catchy radio fodder for Christians, but to really challenge them toward action. Maybe even some of the singers I derided for sounding too middle-of-the-road have expressed similar sentiments, and I just missed it because the songwriting wasn’t as evocative. The inclusion of Catholic singers in a market generally dominated by Protestants can’t be a coincidence. The more backstory you know about these songs and the people who participated in them, the more it’s apparent that these people are trying to rise above a shared history of Christians not loving one another very well. I totally admire and support that. I just wish a lot of the songs themselves communicated those sentiments more profoundly, without it being necessary at all to read into the reasons for anyone’s inclusion. Working with all of these people shouldn’t have resulted in a compromise of the creative, articulate vision that Jars of Clay normally follows through on quite well when they make albums. So this is one of those weird cases where a group gets an A for effort, but something resembling a B minus for execution.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Small Rebellions $1
Call My Name $.50
We Will Follow $.50
Eyes Wide Open $2
The Shelter $.50
Out of My Hands $.50
No Greater Love $.50
Run in the Night $1
Lay It Down $1.50
Love Will Find Us $1.50
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.