Jars of Clay – Inland: Age of Mature Exploration

2013_JarsofClay_InlandArtist: Jars of Clay
Album: Inland
Year: 2013
Grade: A-

In Brief: Jars of Clay is a band trapped between audiences. Their dedication to not speaking “Christian-ese” and not offering easy answers can cause a bit of a disconnect with listeners raised on CCM. But their quirky, folk/rock sound with light electronic overtones ain’t exactly mainstream, either. Inland succeeds despite those challenges, coming across as a more organic take on The Long Fall Back to Earth.

If you’ve known me for any length of time, and you know that Jars of Clay released an album this summer, then you can probably imagine how frustrating it’s been for me to not be able to review it until now. That’s why I’ve started a new WordPress blog – because Epinions just doesn’t have its act together in terms of keeping its music database up to date, and Facebook has apparently decided it no longer understands basic HTML tags. I figured I should just circumvent the need for technical support and just write about whatever I want, whenever I see fit.

Ever since lead singer Dan Haseltine first communicated with fans via his own blog about the kind of songs he had been writing for the album that would become Inland, I’ve been more intrigued than I usually am leading up to the release of a new Jars record. In his estimation, these new songs were risky, and had the potential to be easily misunderstood. It’s a risk that any “Christian band” runs when its songwriters discover that they can’t help but be honest, even when it comes at the expense of racking up Christian radio hits or being seen as a role model. And honestly, these concerns aren’t new ones for Jars. Ever since the days of Much Afraid, such un-sunny subjects as doubt and depression have crept up in their lyrics. Perhaps he made more of an attempt to obscure how much these things weighed on him in those days, but it was there underneath all the poetry, and as he and the band went back to revisit some of the long-forgotten songs in their canon during 2011 and 2012, I understood for perhaps the first time what had motivated songs that I had always deeply related to. A lot of the “Christian music” audience seems to want songs of worship and encouragement. But I’ve often felt that this can lead to an incomplete reality, and I’ve often taken comfort in hearing that I’m not the only one who’s wondered if he’s a “defective Christian”. Even when God and Jesus are clearly named in their songs, the band makes a good effort not to toss out the usual “Christian lingo” that puts a wall between well-meaning Christian songwriters and the seekers and skeptics in their audience. Yet at times they can seem to have a split personality, trying their hand at albums full of hymns (Redemption Songs), contemporary “congregational” worship songs (The Shelter), and mostly cheery holiday music (Christmas Songs). From album to album, I’d expect that the target audience could differ considerably, and that’s not even taking into account their constantly evolving musical style. Even knowing all that, Inland was shaping up to be something completely different, perhaps even to the point of alienating some of their long-time Christian fans.

Finally having Inland in my hands a few months back, I was slightly disappointed and slightly relieved to learn that Jars hadn’t done anything particularly controversial here. Part of me wanted them to rock the CCM world by tipping over some of its sacred cows, and part of me didn’t want them to rebel just for the sake of rebellion. The thing about honesty in songwriting is that it tends to come out because a songwriter can’t help it, not because they feel some sort of artificial urge to prove anything. So while there are stark tales about characters who lose hope, shy away from human contact, and drown their sorrows in alcohol and temporary flings, none of it sounds like it was done to bait conservative Christians. Sure, there are those who have criticized the album for relating to its down-and-out characters so well that it seems to have no explicit hope to offer them. I figure this is because a large subset of “Christian music” fans view songs like sermons, thinking that whatever words are sung are actions that the singer endorses, rather than just observations that these things happen because we are all broken people. So those who get caught up in wondering what the “message” of a song is may come away feeling a bit troubled because really none of these songs provide the warm fuzzies that you might get from, say, “Love Song for a Savior”. However, I’ve found some light-heartedness and some genuine encouragement by taking a deeper look at the whole picture. Songs about immature but well-meaning actions taken by young lovers may not be lessons unto themselves, but a neighboring song may look back on those heady days with a wiser viewpoint, or provide some feeling of solace to the unrelenting fear and misery experienced by a character several tracks ago. As with the group’s foray into nostalgic, electronic pop music on The Long Fall Back to Earth, it seems like a lot of these songs were forged out of sympathy for people they watched go through some genuine struggles – with addictions, with miscommunication, maybe even with wondering whether they still love each other after years of taking each other for granted. To me, these things make Inland a record that is good for the soul, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it’s not preaching about how I should live my life, but rather offering parables about lives not lived to their full potential.

OK, so we’ve talked a lot about lyrics, and I haven’t really said much at all about the musical style – which is never a given on a Jars of Clay record. Honestly, at this point two decades into their career, there’s little they could do to surprise me in terms of throwing musical curveballs. But given that they had talked quite a bit about the experience of uprooting themselves from their musical comfort zone (which they kind of had to do, having lost their own studio to a flood and all), setting up shop in Portland, Oregon with producer Tucker Martine after many years of self-producing most of their stuff, and bringing in a lot of organic instrumentation, I’m actually surprised that this isn’t a much “earthier” record in the vein of Who We Are Instead. You will hear the occasional mandolin or banjo on this record, but their old standby, the acoustic guitar, seems far less prominent on Inland than it is on most of their albums. This gives guitarists Steve Mason and Matt Odmark a chance to branch out and do some interesting things with electric guitars… but this isn’t a rock-oriented record like Good Monsters or as synth-heavy a record as The Long Fall, either. Charlie Lowell contributes his fair share of keyboards and effects, even including one of the rare “piano ballad”-type songs in the Jars discography, but in a lot of places, the rhythm section actually seems to take prominence, despite this being a band without a permanent drummer or bass player. Strings and horns are prominent on a few tracks, giving the band more of a lush, dramatic, almost “baroque” sort of sound, but not in such a way that you’d think they’re jumping on the indie pop bandwagon. Remember how strings were such a huge part of their early sound? It’s tough to explain, but they’re a huge part of this new sound in a very different way.

Despite being a tough album to pin down genre-wise, what gives Inland its defining character isn’t a set of instruments or a target audience that it wants to reach. It’s the notion of charting new ground and living with the discomfort of having no obvious landmarks for a while until the new, scary place begins to feel like home. Sometimes that means confronting personal demons without sugar-coating the nastiness of the situation. Sometimes that means admitting a relationship is falling apart and that few things on this Earth were truly built to last, and just having a good cry over it. And sometimes it means finding the courage to come alongside a lost soul and promise devoted companionship even if you’re no more sure how to escape the maze than they are. How God chooses to speak through songs like these will likely be as varied as the personal experiences of each listener. But I guess I’ve sort of grown up with this band, and over time I’ve come to appreciate that sort of songwriting the most.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. After the Fight
4 years ago, the band introduced “Safe to Land” as a “fighting song”. At times I’m tempted to call Inland a “fighting album”, especially given that it starts with this song, which isn’t about fighting in a relationship per se, but you definitely get the sense that things got ugly between two people. Dan plays a character here who has just enough chutzpah and just few enough brain cells to keep goading someone into a fight even when it’s a losing battle – it’s like he’s addicted to the fight itself, at whatever cost. “I get to fight with the lightning, talk back to the thunder”, he insists, as if it were a God-given right. But the chorus shows some remorse, wondering what he’ll be like when the other person calls his bluff and comes out swinging. Is there a life past the aggression? Is is possible to “Return my fists to fingers after the final round” and make peace with the person? These questions are explored over a meaty musical backdrop that would have fit in well on Good Monsters – piano and guitar playing the main riff in tandem while drums and thick bass might actually be the most prominent instruments in the song. It’s emotionally heavier than the usual Jars album opener, but there’s plenty of pop savvy there as well, including a background vocal hook that reminds me quite a bit of R.E.M.‘s “Get Up”.
Grade: A-

2. Age of Immature Mistakes
This is one of those songs where, if you’ve ever looked back on some of the stupid stuff you did in your teenage years, and you can at least get a few chuckles out of your own embarrassment, then you’ll probably relate to what’s going on here. When Dan comes out singing sweetly over a string section about little love notes and keepsakes that some earnest young guy is presenting to a girl he probably just met or something, it’s at once cute and tragic, because it pretty much embodies the way that we can take temporary, throw-away things when we’re that age and try to assign something meaningful and eternal to them. “Nervously up-tempo” is how I’d describe this song – the drums and bass are quite brisk once they get going, and the guitars just sort of “tremble” along rather than doing anything edgy or riff-heavy. Even if the chorus has a bit of a weak vocal hook (it’s still reasonably catchy), I sort of like that the main “riff” here comes from the strings dovetailing with those vocals. There’s definitely some humor here – it’s hard not to smirk at the notion of him using his own voice as a ringtone “Saying the boy of your dreams is calling when I’m calling”, or even at the band teasing their own past selves over love poetry “Using words like oceans, crashing waves and stormy seas”. This one’s really well-written – it keeps coming back to that notion that “We don’t know enough about love, so we make it up” and driving home the notion that it’s easy to throw around these declarations of undying love when we have neither the experience nor the perspective to back them up.
Grade: A-

3. Reckless Forgiver
Here the album settles into more of a mid-tempo groove for a few songs that brings out a bit more of the “organic” instrumentation I mentioned earlier – there are lots of plucked strings and a delightful little fiddle hook in this one, and while I wouldn’t characterize it as veering into country music the way several songs on Who We Are Instead and Redemption Songs did, it’s nice to hear a little bit of that flavor again after several pop and rock-oriented albums in between. This song’s an easy one to misconstrue, because in its confession of the things a man wants to feel loved, you hear these terms such as “All I want is peace like a river” and of course the song’s title (reckless forgiveness is another term for grace, isn’t it?), and you think, “These are spiritual needs; he’s talking to God.” Then there are these other troubling bits of lyrics. “Someone to pull out the splinters.” Isn’t that what your mother does for you when you’re a little kid crying over the tiniest little wounds? “So get undressed, laugh tomorrow.” Hmmm, I wouldn’t ask that of either a parent or a redeemer, so what’s going on here? I think that may be the point of the song – sometimes we come into relationships expecting the other person to mother us or, heck, even be God-like. Illustrating these unrealistic notions of how humans are supposed to love other humans is an important piece of Inland‘s puzzle, but it’s one that I worry a lot of folks might miss.
Grade: B+

4. Human Race
I can’t really give the band a whole lot of credit for turning the phrase “human race” into a pun, as if it were an actual foot race. That’s been done to death by everyone from philosophers to hack comedians. But writing a song about how we’re “limping along” in that race does manage to show a lot of insight. Much like “Closer”, the lyrics to this one seem like pure silliness at first: “Another song you forget by the ending/Plastic we don’t know we’re spending/My favorite shows have all cancelled/And every patent is pending.” What’s all this commercial flotsam and jetsam doing in a song about humanity? That’s sort of the point, I guess – that consumer culture and technological overload have slowly replaced our concerns to the point where it’s hard to actually care about and connect with people any more. Not in a “technology is bad” sort of way… more in the sense that there are just too many little voices competing for our attention. While this topic is a bit of a bummer when you really think about it, the band keeps the mood light here with every tool in their jangle pop arsenal – fun little handclaps, a modest but irresistible banjo hook, a bit of muted trumpet just to blur the genre lines a little more, and a sudden loosening of the song’s rhythm for a slightly “messy” bridge section with the sort of electric guitar solo that takes me back to the If I Left the Zoo era. The only think out of place here is the electronic vocal effects that echo behind the chorus – which may be intentional, since they’re most noticeable right after the line “The sound of your heartbeat is out of place.”
Grade: B+

5. Love in Hard Times
I’ll admit to some bias here, since the band released this song much earlier as a teaser with their live EP Under the Weather, but even after absorbing the rest of the album, this one remains my favorite. I suppose it was destiny for a song that brings back strong memories of my favorite tracks from two very different albums – The Long Fall‘s “Safe to Land” for its lyrical content, and Who We Are Instead‘s “Lesser Things” for its toe-tapping, road-trip-ready rhythm and its harmonica-laden soft rock sound. This one pretty clearly speaks of reconciliation in a relationship that’s been through hell and back, so I like to view it as the continuing story of the protagonist from “Safe to Land” after the plane has landed. There’s still coldness and tension, but the couple has taken that first step to put one warm hand in the other, and promise to fight on the same side, to work things out. It could also be the flipside of “After the Fight”, since the song is brimming over with empathy, finally seeing another person desperately hurting from the wounds you’ve dealt them, and promising to be done with those old ways. The song acknowledges how bleak the situation has become, so the hope found here isn’t a fake, Pollyanna-esque sort of thing, but rather a stubborn form of love, one that I can relate to pretty strongly following the ups and downs of eight years of marriage (and counting).
Grade: A+

6. Pennsylvania
While the big, dramatic string hit that opens this song may startle you, most of the rest of it will seem like it wants to lull you to sleep at first, with its cold, detached keyboards, it drums softly thumping like a heart barely beating, and its seemingly detached vocals, obliquely describing hopeless situations in little vignettes that aren’t easily untangled: “A picture of a child groom on the bedside/The flicker from a half lit chandelier/Souvenirs from hell and Pennsylvania/The vows of London Tower that got us here.” The mood here is much like the beginning of “Oh My God”, and it seems like it’s shaping up to be just as big of a tear-jerker, but the chorus, as desperate as it sounds to feel something, kind of pulls the plug on the ability to fully express those emotions: “Look but don’t touch/Hurt but don’t cry/Break out of these cages/And never fly.” For that reason, I’m sure not everyone will like it, since it doesn’t end with the big outpouring of prayer that “Oh My God” or the group’s signature song “Worlds Apart” did. This one takes place a few steps earlier – just taking in bits and pieces of all the world’s hurt and hopelessness, sort of being overwhelmed by it, but trying to fight off the urge to just stop caring because it’s all too huge to handle. It’s the little things in the arrangement that help this song to take flight, especially the dramatic gliding and occasional nose-diving of the strings. At times I find it hard to believe that this one wasn’t scored by Jeremy Larson – it sounds like it’d be right up his alley.
Grade: A

7. Loneliness & Alcohol
The unresolved and uncomfortable ending of “Pennsylvania” gives you no warning that a huge drumbeat with a similarly-sized riff is about to come crashing in – Jars of Clay doesn’t pull out the “big rockers” terribly often, but when they do, they’re definitely memorable. If you thought the one-two punch of “Work” and “Dead Man” at the beginning of Good Monsters was a bit on the dark side, then this one may as well be pitch-black – not that it doesn’t have one heck of a melodic hook (because it may well be the best one on the album), but man, is this a cynical little outburst of a song. The entire rhythm and melody of the song drops away for the first verse, leaving only the bass to rattle around in your brain as Dan sings, and it seems like the lonely character he’s singing about has given in to that urge to feel nothing, but it takes a steady diet of booze and TV and other forms of escapism to keep those feelings from welling up again. Instead of gently cozing him out of his cave, it’s almost like Dan’s trying to goad him into fighting back by way of reverse psychology, saying to just go ahead and bury it all underneath his vices and deep, dark secrets. I’m surprised the big moral guardians who like to promote “Christian” music as a safe alternative aren’t causing more of a misguided furor over this one. Maybe Jars of Clay just flies below their radars these days? Guess I shouldn’t complain. Either way, if this song strikes you as troubling, it’s because it’s meant to provoke that exact response. Most of the band’s existing audience knows it’s wrong to live a life of selfish numbness and self-medication. But then you grow up and life happens and life is often unfair, and you face that temptation to just stop putting the emotional effort into it. So sometimes a little splash of cold water like this song is just what the doctor ordered. (Just for fun, try playing the song “Ísjaki” by Sigur Rós right after this one. The two bands have absolutely nothing in common, but the perfect melodic hand-off between one song and the next, which I discovered thanks to one of those serendipitous “iTunes on shuffle” moments, was just too perfect for me to not mention.)
Grade: A+

8. I Don’t Want You to Forget
Most of the album past this point is fairly low-key, so while I hope you rocked the heck out to “Loneliness & Alcohol”, I also hope it didn’t give you false expectations. This song in particular took me a while to get into, with its slow, cautious rhythm and its gritty electric guitar parts evoking images of a sad, rainy day. I’ve begun to appreciate it as the first step in getting back into the fight, as if a man has reached out his hand to someone he doesn’t want to see slip any farther down, promising to be their reminder that it’s never too late to turn things around. He doesn’t consider himself a savior by any means, even coming close to admitting ulterior motives for trying to change their disposition: “You mistake me for a healer/I’m just a desperate man, stealing one last chance.” The harmonica, the organ, and especially the guitar add some much-needed soul to the song – not in the sense of “soul” the musical genre, but in the sense of a world-weary heart that still holds unexpected and hopefully contagious hope for a brighter future despite the ridiculous odds against it.
Grade: B 

9. Fall Asleep
What’s this… a simple, stripped down piano ballad? This song didn’t seem like much to me at first – I don’t tend to like it when bands that have good interplay between several instruments trim everything back to just one. Piano ballads with simple chords aren’t really a Jars of Clay thing, but Charlie leads this one well enough. The key here is realizing that it’s not about showing off complex melodies or textures, but setting that all aside for a few quiet minutes to give one man and one instrument the spotlight. In doing so, they evoke the feeling of one of those vulnerable moments late in a romantic drama where the couple hits a moment of truth, and realizes things might not work out between them. There’s a bit of the teenage innocence from “Age of Immature Mistakes” creeping back in here, but it’s like he’s finally opening his eyes to the notion of what his life might be like years or decades from now, and what her life might be like, and realizing the pieces aren’t gonna fit together for much longer. Tragically, his heart’s response is to want to stop the clock, as he begs “Stay up with me, don’t fall asleep”, as the insects and frogs gently chirp and ribbit outside and the rain softly trickles down the windowpanes. Some strings come in later, but the arrangement never overplays its hand or betrays the emotional fragility of the moment. You want to believe the guy when he pines “The next time we’ll meet under city lights”, but somehow you know that even if they do, things just won’t be the same and this pure moment between them may never come again.
Grade: B 

10. Skin & Bones
There have been occasional songs on Jars records in the past that I haven’t liked – where I felt the band made a decision due to something important to them, but I disagreed with the way they executed it. While I’ve critiqued such songs, I’ve never considered them “screw-ups” per se, because they were conscious choices made by four smart guys in the studio. This song… I don’t know. It honestly seems like a subtle “screw-up” kind of slipped past them on this one, maybe in a way that would be imperceptible to most people, but one that honestly bugs the hell out of me every time I hear it. You see, this song has a great lead-in, which gets you expecting something big and powerful. The tempo seems to be picking up after the slowness and sparseness of the last few tracks, the melody and vocal performance are among the band’s best, and the big, pounding drums and the space left between them all seem to be pointing to a huge emotional release during the chorus. And then they get to the chorus and… it’s too slow. It’s like the metronome suddenly dropped a few bpm’s, and the band is suddenly playing everything on every quarter note, and all the power just gets sucked out of it, as if they’d dropped in a refrain from a much more easy-going song. The lyrics are practically screaming for some form of human contact, and the way the song is written, it has the emotional impact of one of those fairytale moments where a prince wakes his princess from an accursed sleep. When Dan sings “Let go of my love, while she sleeps tonight”, as the bridge leads back into the final chorus, I’m imagining what a great climax that could lead into… but that’s apparently abandoned somewhere on the cutting room floor.
Grade: C+ 

11. Left Undone
This one’s a pretty good example of the electronic and the organic working in perfect harmony – something that hasn’t always gone so perfectly elsewhere on this album. The rumbling synth bass at the beginning lets you know they’re building up to more of a danceable rhythm, though they take their time getting there. And there’s a hammered dulcimer providing yet another strong instrumental hook, reminding me of Coldplay in two very different ways at once (“Life in Technicolor”, and the more synth-oriented sound of Mylo Xyloto), but neither of them are so common to Coldplay that it feels like Jars intentionally aped another band. This is another one that I relate to quite a bit, because I’m really OCD about finishing the things that I start, to the point where if I have several projects up in the air as the end of a calendar year is approaching, I have to compulsively finish them all before that artificial deadline. That’s probably not what the song is about – I think it’s more about abandoned dreams and principles that have caused a man to realize his more idealistic younger self would hate him for. It definitely sets a different mood than most of the tracks on this album, kind of a moment of self-assessment that leads to a personal re-birth of sorts.
Grade: A

12. Inland
The title track, quite honestly, isn’t one of the band’s best. Title tracks have the added burden of having to sum up an entire album, especially when you place them at the album, and if you’re going to approach them as big, singable anthems like Jars did here, then you’ve gotta get the hook and the tempo right. Something about it is a little… I don’t know, lackadaisical for my tastes. I still have a mildly positive reaction towards it; I just feel that it could have been so much stronger. A steady acoustic rhythm meets up with slide guitars, group vocals, and another smattering of out-of-place synth, steadily building into a song that probably plays a lot better in a live setting, where they can build it up even more and take that chorus around the block a few extra times for a big finish. (How bummed am I that I was out of town when their tour for this album reached L.A.? Waaaaaayyyyyy bummed.) Lyrically, I like the notion of a voice calling a man to explore farther and farther inland from the oceans where he’s been content to sail off into the mist all by his lonesome. This new ground may be uncharted and scary, but there’s a tenacious promise of companionship here that does help to wrap things up thematically: “You keep walking inland/Where no man is an island/Come on home to me.”
Grade: B-

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
After the Fight $1.50
Age of Immature Mistakes $1.50
Reckless Forgiver $1.25
Human Race $1.25
Love in Hard Times $2
Pennsylvania $1.75
Loneliness & Alcohol $2
I Don’t Want You to Forget $1
Fall Asleep $1
Skin & Bones $.50
Left Undone $1.75
Inland $.75
TOTAL: $15.25

BAND MEMBERS:
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:
http://open.spotify.com/album/26xODR4QAfy3zgeLAvxhpG

MORE USEFUL LINKS:
http://www.jarsofclay.com
http://www.facebook.com/jarsofclay
http://www.jarchives.com

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5 thoughts on “Jars of Clay – Inland: Age of Mature Exploration

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