“Jars of Clay? Are they still around?”
I’ve gotten that reaction from a lot of people when I tell them that Jars of Clay is my all-time favorite band, or when they notice me wearing one of the old, raggedy shirts I bought at one of their concerts ages ago. I try to take it in stride, because to most of the world, the band is considered a one-hit wonder. (Heck, there’s even a YouTube show about one-hit wonders that I got into because they did an episode on the band’s mid-90s crossover hit “Flood”.) Even to folks who were super into Christian rock and came of age around the same time I did, who are more familiar with the band’s work than just the one song, they tend to like the band’s first album and not really know or care about much of their work after that point. It gets difficult to explain to folks that: (a) Yes, they still make music after all these years, (b) Yes, they’re all still Christians, (c) No, they never had another mainstream hit and they were probably better off not angling for one, and (d) They’ve massively improved as artists since that already excellent first album.
Eventually, I have to stop worrying about how everyone else perceives the band. To be fair to those who tried to get deeper into the band and just didn’t like what they heard beyond the obvious hits, my favorite songs and albums from this band haven’t always been personal favorites, either – a good amount of their stuff had to slowly grow on me. Maybe I’ve just been lucky enough that I seem to have grown up, as a Christian but also as a person in general, in tandem with how the band’s music has evolved and matured over the years. More than any other band, they seem to be the one that “gets” me the most, and that feeling has helped me to be patient with them, even when I wasn’t sure about the latest musical detour they had decided to take. Regardless of how popular or obscure they might be, shouldn’t every music lover have a band like that?
I wanted to start off 2019 by paying tribute to some longtime favorite bands of mine in the form of a personal “Favorite Songs” list, and Jars of Clay’s rich and diverse discography seemed like the obvious place for me to start. I did this for Linkin Park a year and a half ago, spurred by the tragic news of Chester Bennington‘s then-recent death. I decided that I didn’t want to wait for someone to die, or even for an acrimonious breakup, to start doing this for other bands. Jars of Clay has been largely inactive since 2014, only playing the occasional show here and there, with its members mostly involved in other pursuits (some musical, others not so much). They never “broke up” in the traditional sense, but have taken a deliberate hiatus from recording and touring. So it seems like their career’s at a pretty good stopping point where I can be reasonably certain a list of personal favorites isn’t going to need re-evaluation due to the introduction of brand new material any time soon. I can honestly say that if they were to announce that they were definitively, permanently parting ways tomorrow, I’d certainly feel a huge sense of loss, but I’d also be OK with it, due to the long and rich discography they’ve left me with, and how good of a note they left off on. This is a band that started out doing folksy “alternative” music with drum loops and strings and woodwinds, and whose repertoire ended up running the gamut from quirky alt-rock to Americana to electronica, from deeply personal and relational songs to hymns and Christmas carols and even the dreaded “worship album”, sometimes many of these things on the same record, but managing to carve out a cohesive sonic palette that made each entry in their discography feel distinct. An incredibly keen pop sensibility is what ties all of it together. Whatever genre they dabbled in, it was pretty much always guaranteed to be deviously catchy, and even in some of their most downbeat, reflective moments, the melodies and words and overall ambiance seemed to have a lot more depth than you might expect just from paying attention to the most superficial aspects of their most well-known songs. I had to cull down this list of 20 songs that I’ve put together from a list of over 90 candidates. That’s really saying something,
More than their intriguing genre change-ups from album to album, more than their knack for writing delicious hooks, what I really love this band for the most is their ability to write about their faith in a way that doesn’t seem didactic. Hard questions are asked that aren’t always answered, or that leave you with the impression that the entire answer can’t be known – at least, not yet. Songs are often written “horizontally” rather than “vertically” – meaning they’re addressed from one human being to another, rather than as praise songs or prayers to God. They have those “vertical” songs as well, but especially later in their career, they seemed to find a sense of identity in the implication that rebuilding broken human relationships and building up the community strengthens our bond with God, often without God or Jesus having to be name-dropped in the process. Art doesn’t always have to name its inspiration explicitly for people to know where it’s coming from. I think that’s a commendable thing, when it’s done well.
Aside from the instances where the band was doing something like recording old hymns or curating a collaborative album of congregational songs, they tended to shy away from the worst of the Christian rock world’s lyrical clichés, instead challenging themselves to describe their doubts and joys and dilemmas and the hope than ran deep, deep beneath it all, in terms that one didn’t have to be immersed in churchy subculture to understand. Occasionally this meant that they struck a nerve with the watchdogs who strove to keep Christian music “safe for the whole family”, and the resulting controversies often looked rather petty from an outsider’s standpoint, but I respected ’em for continuing to ask the questions, up to and including that one time lead singer Dan Haseltine dared to Tweet something to the effect of “Hey, what if it turned out the Church was wrong for treating gay people so horribly?” (I’m paraphrasing liberally here, of course), and the Twitterverse lost its collective mind. Stuff like that is why the band was probably not in a big hurry to pander to the Christian market with their last few studio albums, and if I’m being honest, it might be why they eventually got burned out on making music at all. But I respect them immensely for being approachable to the people who had more difficult questions than pat, easy answers. That’s the kind of Christian I’ve become since over half my life ago when I started listening to Jars, and it’s been amazing to observe them go through what seems to have been a similar process in parallel. I see them less as “musical heroes” to be put on some sort of pedestal, and more as kindred spirits.
With that in mind… let’s get this countdown started. (It’s really more of a count-up, since I prefer to skip the suspense and get my #1 pick out of the way right at the beginning of these things, so that those who will read that one paragraph and probably just skim the rest can save a little time. But I digress.)
1. Like a Child
(From Jars of Clay, 1995)
Even though I insist that the group has grown leaps and bounds beyond their self-titled debut record, and find myself frustrated that a lot of people don’t want to seem to pay much attention to any of the rest of their discography, I have to admit that there’s a certain special, wide-eyed, innocent magic to that record that still makes it a joy to go back to after all these years. My personal favorite cut from that album served as a sort of “theme song” for me in college, when I felt like my whole worldview as a Christian was opening up so rapidly that I could scarcely take it all in. I had my frustrations and my short-sighted temper tantrums, as Dan acknowledges in the verses of this song, but when I think back on those years, I see a lot of wide-eyed wonder. The concept of “childlike faith” is never something that I want to believe I’ve evolved beyond. It is not the same thing as childish faith, which is a stubbornly entitled system of petty deal-making with God, and which refuses to mature or to engage with truly difficult doubts or questions. It is not the same thing as blind faith, which accepts everything it is told without question (and which can be an incredibly dogmatic and dangerous approach to faith). Rather, it is a curious, organic, open-minded type of faith, that is constantly growing and learning, and which is assured of God’s love even in the midst of the most embarrassing stumbles and slip-ups and faux pas. It is a faith that acknowledges, “The world is far bigger than me, and I have a lifetime to spend constantly learning this lesson.” Is it a faith that one never graduates or retires from. That, to me, is exciting – that I’m always going to be like an inquisitive child on God’s knee, rather than a stuffy scholar who purports to know it all and can now only lecture others about it. Man, I’ve talked a lot about the concept of this song without even mentioning the music, which is one of the most delightful, up-tempo acoustic romps I’ve ever heard, with its heavily Celtic-influenced whistles and its sprightly fiddle playing – the kind of thing where I can distinctly recall one Christian radio deejay joking that it “sounded like an Irish Spring commercial” when it first hit the airwaves. It’s not one of the better-known singles from that album, but that’s probably for the best, as it means a lot of Jars of Clay fans have probably heard and appreciated it, but it still feels like a bit of a “dark horse” pick that only someone like me would put at the very tip-top of such a list.
2. Safe to Land
(From Closer EP, 2008 and The Long Fall Back to Earth, 2009)
Some of my all-time favorite love songs are the ones that acknowledge how difficult love can be to maintain over a long period of time, and that find a committed couple at odds with each other, trying to muster up the will to fight for their relationship and close whatever chasm has opened up between them. The rigors of touring can take a real toll on married people with families back home who love them – even a marriage that is firing on all cylinders can need a period of “re-entry” when a partner returns after having been away for a while, and both have to adjust to their new normal for however long it lasts until one of them has to pick up and leave again. Jars of Clay uses a brilliant metaphor to describe that situation, as this song describes a plane circling, waiting to be cleared for landing in inclement weather, not sure if it’s to enough fuel left to remain in a holding pattern for too much longer. The concept of grace is emphasized heavily in this song – at some point there’s no time to wait for every little concern to be perfectly addressed and for the conflict to be cleanly resolved. That plane’s just gotta land. I didn’t really know what real turmoil in a marriage looked like when I first heard this song in the summer of 2008. But I knew it was an instant classic – a perfect blend of a finger-picked guitar melody and some ambient keyboard sounds befitting the more electronic “retro pop” makeover that would be unveiled on the group’s next full-length album in 2009, all of it very slowly building up to a stunning climax as the situation got more and more desperate. Going through some of the roughest patches of my marriage two or three years later, this was a song that I would come back to for comfort, that occasionally brought tears to my eyes as it reminded me that no matter how dark the skies or how bad the storm, we were gonna work this thing out. And we did. And I think the love we have runs even deeper because of it.
3. All My Tears
(FromGood Monsters, 2006)
This is one of two songs on the list that the band didn’t write themselves. It’s a cover of a country song, originally written in the mid-90s by Julie Miller, and popularized by Emmylou Harris. Its appearance on Good Monsters coincided with the band returning to a bigger more pop/rock oriented sound, so that version is glossy and up-tempo and beautifully crafted, but not the sort of thing you’d expect to have that sort of an origin story, unless you focus more on the minor-key chords and the repeating melodic structure that seems like it could be one of those old folk songs that people sung around campfires over a century ago. After the Good Monsters era, this song was often revisited in more of a stripped-down, acoustic setting whenever the band would play it, and it is such a thing of sublime beauty in that setting, drawing out rich vocal harmonies from the band members and whoever they happen to be performing with at the time, that many fans have cited various acoustic versions as superior to the album version. I could go either way, honestly. The joyous pop/rock arrangement fits with the song’s message that you shouldn’t have to cry for a departed loved one who has gone on to be with Jesus, because they’re finally home and finally free. It dares to call for celebration at a time when a lot of us mortal humans tend to fixate on the morbid reality of our own finite lifespans. But that’s because it looks ahead at the infinite, with bold assurance that this is where we will all arrive sooner or later. I’ve said many times that this is the song I want played at my funeral. I say it so much because I want the folks who have the good fortune of outliving me to remember how much I said this, and to actually do it. They can do it all upbeat and anthemic, or all downbeat and reverent. Doesn’t matter to me. But one way or another, this song must be played when folks gather to remember me and say goodbye. (Preferably after that, they can all proceed to have a roast and make horrible jokes at my expense or something, because I want folks to remember to have fun with it instead of being all down in the dumps. But that’s a wishlist for me to fill out on another day.)
(From Much Afraid, 1997)
Much Afraid is a textbook case of a second album. Many consider it a sophomore slump, since it’s not as upbeat or overtly religious as their first album. Some, like me, consider it a massively underrated work of genius. This thing is my favorite album of the 90s, and for quite a while I considered it my favorite album of all time (though that length of time I considered to be “all” was really just a long stretch of the 90s, with the odd 80s record thrown in here and there). But that wasn’t the case on the first few listens. I didn’t know what the heck had happened, where the strings and beats had gone, or why this album was so mellow and melancholy. And it all got off to a rather abrupt start, with Dan Haseltine’s voice being the very first sound heard after pressing the play button: “You name me. Who am I?” I didn’t know about the depression he had gone through when making this album, or how that had informed the songwriting. Christians simply didn’t talk about these things directly back then, and those who struggled with them often did so in silence, worried that they were somehow irreparably broken or that they were being unfaithful, “bad” Christians. The pressures of fame and the need to follow up a massively successful record with a label’s demand for presumably more of the same were probably part of what put Dan there. I had gone through my own depression in the early months of 1997, so while I was just barely coming out the other side of it that fall when Much Afraid dropped, it dawned on me slowly that I really related to the fragility in this song, acknowledging that while we may feel weak and uncertain and helpless in our need for God, that’s exactly where we can be most assured of God’s love for us. Dan puts it way more poetically than I ever could, and honestly this is one of those songs where no amount of dissecting the words could really get to the bottom of how deeply I’ve felt both the desperation and the sense of overwhelming gratitude expressed in this song over the years. Never mind that the vocal melody, chord progression, and brief bits of guitar soloing in this song are downright delectable. These aren’t the typical four chords of pop – there’s a veritable kaleidoscope of unexpected key changes and chords that shouldn’t work as well jammed up next to each other as they ended up working here. Quite a bit is packed into a mere three minutes here, and I probably can’t overstate how influential songs like these have been in getting me to appreciate a multitude of songs with eccentric chord progressions in the twenty (!) years since.
5. Love in Hard Times
This heartfelt gem from the band’s most recent studio album might be slightly guilty of paying homage to one of the band’s musical heroes a bit too closely for comfort. Ever heard Bruce Springsteen‘s “I’m on Fire”? Then you know where the “heartland rock” vibe, the slow rhythmic build and the cathartic “woo hoo!”s in this song come from, which feel like they’re calling out across a vast windy plain in the summer heat, hoping to be heard by a long lost lover hundreds of long, monotonous road miles away. (Accompanied by a harmonica, of course. There’s just got to be at least a little bit of harmonica in a song like this.) There’s a weariness to this song that only a group of men with many years of collective wisdom under their belt could write, and yet they still seem utterly gobsmacked by this thing called love, fortunate to still have a shot at it, despite all the years of petty bickering and nights spent on the couch and being on tour wishing they hadn’t taken their spouses for granted before they left. Just as in “Safe to Land”, grace is the overwhelming need being expressed here, as this song extends an olive branch and an offer to put down the weapons, pick up the plowshare, and keep tilling that soil together. It’s beautiful stuff. Still damn near brings me to tears every time I hear it.
(From The Eleventh Hour, 2002 and 20, 2014)
To me, this is the quintessential “Where is God when it hurts?” song. It’s also a bold example of a Jars of Clay song that asks questions it can’t answer. It doesn’t try to. It’s simply a snapshot of a man in his darkest hour, crying out to God and not hearing a reply. Maybe he’s even a little angry or bitter, that he looks back along the lonely beach he’s been walking, and unlike the cheesy poem us Christians all know and some of us kind of secretly hate, he only sees his own footprints. Having gone through enough “dark nights of the soul” like this in my own journey as a Christian, I’ve come to understand that God is there even when God appears to be distant or silent. But the song isn’t here to give that moral into the story – it just wants those who have felt or are feeling that way to know they’re not the only ones to have such thoughts. The original album version of this song was one heck of a bizarre change of pace on The Eleventh Hour, an otherwise glossy pop/rock album that seemed to consolidate every sound that had worked for the band thus far. Along came this song with its looped, glitchy static sample, and some sort of a toy keyboard plunking out a sad but lovely melody that would repeat for the entire duration of the song without any real resolution. If country songs do this sort of thing so that you can cry in your beer, this song lets you cry in your communion wine. It’s that effective. And it’s saying a lot that, as much as I had come to love the album version, the band actually bested it twelve years later, when they re-recorded it as a simple but lush acoustic version for their retrospective album 20. All of the songs from previous albums that were picked for the band to re-do for that record were voted on by fans, with only the top two vote-getters per record making the cut. That was a huge surprising, given the number of more attention grabbing singles on TEH. With all of that to choose from, the fanbase went with this one. It’s nice to get affirmation, with a weird little song like this, that you’re not the only one who deeply resonates with it.
7. Scenic Route
(FromThe Long Fall Back to Earth, 2009)
I love driving. Maybe not so much the daily commute to work and to get errands done, but definitely as a means of long-distance travel. Given the choice between taking a familiar, boring Interstate that is the most efficient route to my destination, and taking a windy side road noted for its unusual scenery, I’ll pick the latter option as often as time allows (and even sometimes when it’s a bit of a stretch). So it was natural that I was going to love this song, which compares both the action of driving just for the sake of taking in the scenery, and the action of getting deeply immersed in a dense novel, to the lifelong journey of truly getting to know another person. We could live our whole lives and probably never know everything there is to know about someone, even one of our closest family members or our own spouse. And to even be on the mutual journey of getting to know someone that deeply… well, I think that’s a deeper form of true love than you’ll see in just about any rom-com or read about in any romance novel. I’ve always been fascinated by the promise of infinite discovery, of always having another obscure side road to take or supplementary chapter to read or new bit of knowledge to glean from a subject I thought I’d tapped dry. Eventually, all earthly forms of discovery will eventually run out, but probably not for me within my own lifetime. And I think that’s what heaven will be like – never running out of new territory to explore and new ways to learn what love is. This song is longer and more generous than most in the Jars catalogue – the opening is a long, drawn-out tease of ambient synths and bass notes growing steadily in the background, until the shuffling rhythm of the song comes to the forefront and we’re off on that glorious road trip, chasing a moon high in the sky that we know we’ll never catch with. And even when it seems like it’s faded out to its final resolution, there’s that last confident little hit on the drums, as if to throw off our expectations last time, just when we thought we had finally gotten the lay of the land.
8. Fade to Grey
(FromMuch Afraid, 1997)
Oldie but a goodie here – this is actually the first song Jars of Clay wrote together, and it first appeared on their demo Frail in 1994, but I think most fans would agree that version is radically different and rather inferior to the kinetic glory of the version that would end up on Much Afraid a few years later. Expectations had to be pretty massive for this one, given that it was one of the few tracks from the demo that didn’t make it on to the self-titled album. And the song gets rearranged a whole bunch, even daring to fake out the listener as the strings swirl around and Dan’s voice trails off in what should be the first chorus, delaying the gratification until the second chorus, when the big, booming drums and the frenetic guitar strumming finally reach a fever pitch. I had no idea what this song was about at the time, and to be honest, I’ve continued to be rather mystified by it over the years, despite having several theories along the way. It’s definitely on the more despairing end of the band’s lyrics, which is why it was a much better fit for Much Afraid than the self-titled album. What does it mean that if you follow this person, you’ll see “All the black, all the white, fade to grey”? Has morality become entirely relativistic to that person? Are they just so depressed that their world has become formless and colorless? Are they warning us not to be follow them, or do they need someone to be brave enough to follow them and pull them out of that bottomless pit? That a Jars of Clay had this sort of an emotionally heavy, open-to-interpretation song on their minds even when the band was in its infancy speaks volumes about their maturity compared to a lot of young Christian bands of their era. And the ending of this song – that cold, calculated vocal drop still gives me the best kind of chills. For a good chunk of the late 90s, this was used in their setlists as a seamless transition into their mega-hit “Flood”, which got the crowds going absolutely nuts.
9. Love Will Find Us
(FromThe Shelter, 2010)
The Shelter is sort of the odd man out in the Jars of Clay discography. It’s the aforementioned “worship album”, with fellow Christian musicians (some longtime friends of the band, but mostly labelmates that were probably shoehorned in there by the label, whether the band thought they were a good fit or not) involved in the writing and singing on all but one of its tracks. It wasn’t as well received by a lot of the fanbase, but it has its defenders, and even for a lower-rated Jars album, I still enjoy it a fair amount despite its shortcomings. The album does a good job of evoking a sense of community among believers, and a good portion of it is really more about us addressing each other and trying to figure out how to best love God by caring for the lonely and the needy among us, rather than just reciting stock cliches about how cool God is like most contemporary praise songs do. There are some killer highlights on the album, such as its penultimate track, a collaboration with folksy schoolteacher-turned-singer/songwriter Sara Groves and Catholic worship leader Matt Maher that finds them all singing in a dizzyingly wonderful vocal trade-off about our calling as a community to take in the orphaned, the outcast, the window. This song has a bit of a brooding minor key progression typical of Jars of Clay’s more pensive songs, but it resolves into a rousing chorus that really began to hit home for me in the early 2010s when my wife and I started to seriously think about Fostering as an alternative to having a biological child. Listening to it with that context in mind, I couldn’t wait to reach out to that child, who had perhaps come from a place of abuse or neglect or general upheaval, let her know with absolute certainty that she was safe in my arms, and hope that this was an early image of God’s love for her that would somehow imprint itself on her brain. In 2017, that dream finally came true, and the experience of parenting this child has added even more depth to a song that had already left a profound mark on me.
10. Portrait of an Apology
(FromMuch Afraid, 1997)
This song is like the darkest and most decadent of European chocolates. You can tell from the timid, swirling waltz of acoustic guitars that it’s going to be a bittersweet story, and yet the instrumentation and melody are so gorgeously rich that you have to savor it slowly to best appreciate it. I thought for many years that this was simply a song about a person who had messed up in a relationship admitting fault and resolving to fix it. Perhaps that’s it on the surface level – and I certainly used it as a soundtrack of sorts hen working up the courage to apologize to friends for some outburst I’d had, or argument I’d started, or wound I’d inflicted by being my usual high-strung, thin-skinned, overbearing, late-teenaged self. But I realized years later when Dan opened up in a blog about this song that it, too, was about depression. The song uses a painting as a metaphor for trying to explain his state of mind to someone else – it never quite comes out the way he intends it to, and they never quite interpret it the way he hopes they will, and all he can do is beg them to stick around and take a closer look. A lot of the best Jars songs seem to be about putting in the effort to truly know someone. This is one of the band’s most stunning, and nakedly honest, examples – at least if you decide that’s how you want to look at it. As with a number of the songs on Much Afraid, there’s probably a variety wide-ranging and equally compelling fan interpretations.
11. Worlds Apart
(FromJars of Clay, 1995)
“What? He doesn’t have this at #1?! Go get the pitchforks and torches!”, your average Jars of Clay fan is probably thinking. This is the fan favorite to end all fan favorites, as far as the fandom is concerned. And I can’t disagree with how beautiful and profound this song is – it was a personal favorite of mine since the beginning, and time has not diminished its impact. This vulnerable, confessional prayer from the band’s first album drops the gimmicky drum loops in favor of a slow build from a simple, folksy opening to a lush climax filled with breathtaking woodwind instruments and a torrent of emotional lyrics in the song’s coda (which rank among the band’s most often-quoted despite not even being printed on the album’s lyric sheet). This song finds a man at the end of his rope, admitting he has no one but himself to blame for the world that’s come crashing down around him, and employing the legend of Icarus as a metaphor for how badly he’s crashed and burned and found himself in need of redemption. It’s a worshipful song that somehow never falls prey to the temptation to rely on big, anthemic, audience sing-along moments (though the understated call-and-response with then-teenaged vocalist Mancy Alan Kane is quite effective.) I’ve had folks who don’t even consider themselves Christians tell me that they consider this song profound, and it’s certainly brought many a believer to tears, to the point where it’s the most audience-requested song at pretty much every one of the band’s concerts. Admittedly I’ve gotten bit tired of that practice over the years, since the band often stretches it out to ten minutes plus, taking up the space during which two or three songs I haven’t heard them play live before could have been performed. Still, I’ve got to admit that’s a sterling reputation for a song that was never officially released as a single.
12. Lesser Things
(FromWho We Are Instead, 2003)
There’s an achingly lovely harmonica solo in the bridge of this chorus that struck me during one of my first listens through Who We Are Instead, and made me think, “This would be a darn good road trip album”. Consider it an antecedent to the aforementioned “Love in Hard Times”, musically speaking at least. Lyrically speaking, this haunting, minor-key song finds a man admitting he’s idolized way too many things in his life and lost focus of the one he should be praying to. It’s a song with conviction, but once again grace is the overpowering theme, with the chorus simply begging, “Is there grace for a wayward heart?” There’s a slick key change for the final chorus that I really appreciate for how it does more than just bump the entire song up a note like most key changes do. It allows the final chorus to really resonate and feel like more of a bold statement that yes, that grace does exist, before the song subtly slips right back into the key it started out in for the intro. Little artistic touches like that one, I often don’t fully appreciate until I try to work out the guitar chords for songs like these on my own.
(FromJars of Clay, 1995)
This is it – the famous crossover hit that launched the band to way higher levels of notoriety than they probably ever expected. They never recorded another song quite like it, as if acknowledging that this was a freak accident and there was no way they’d ever recapture that lightning in a bottle. Consider how odd it is that (a) a driving acoustic song with nary an electric guitar and a solo from the string section in the middle eight somehow hit it big on mainstream rock radio, and (b) the song used a metaphor based on the story of Noah’s ark to communicate a man’s feelings of drowning in sin. This somehow crossed over at a time when tons of other Christian bands were salty about the supposed fact that you couldn’t talk about God or sin or whatever if you sought mainstream fame. Turns out you could, if you were creative enough about it. But I really think it worked because Jars of Clay wasn’t crafting a crossover hit by design – they just decided to spice up what was essentially the re-recording of their demo EP with a few new songs, one of which was more aggressive than they were previously known for, and Adrian Belew did a hell of a job producing it and a legend was born. I still haven’t gotten tired of this song in over twenty years. To me it’s one of the most iconic songs of the 90s – “Christian rock” or otherwise. I’m sure the band has grown weary of having to play it at Every. Frickin. Show. They’ve found inventive ways to change it up over the years. None of which really hold a candle to the original, but that’s OK. It’s an important moment in the band’s history, and even though they never came anywhere near close to this level of success again, it seems to me that it bought them the creative leeway to follow their muse wherever it led them on subsequent albums.
14. Sad Clown
(FromIf I Left the Zoo, 1999)
If I Left the Zoo seems to be one of the band’s most maligned and misunderstood records. It brought in a little bit of quirkiness, grittiness, and playfulness to balance out the headlong dive into melancholia that they had taken on Much Afraid. It wasn’t an instantly catchy record, but instead more of a grower, and even I was extremely skeptical about it despite my rabid fandom at that point. Listening through it the first several times, being drawn to a lot of the more guitar-driven tracks on the album, I heard this extremely downbeat, jazz-influenced piano ballad and thought to myself, “Well, that one’s certainly never gonna become a favorite”. Fast forward a few years, and… yeah, I was being an idiot. This is now my favorite track on Zoo, not just due to how well it highlights Charlie Lowell as a piano player, but due to the way it presents the entertainer as a clown who is supposed to make us laugh and smile, but who can’t risk revealing his true feelings and faults, for fear of getting laughed at when he isn’t trying to be funny. There’s an almost Vaudevillian sort of tragedy in play here, where you can easily picture that cloud moping down the street on a relentlessly rainy day, and we’re tempted to laugh at him for being pathetic, even though the song begs for us to empathize instead. Do we demand too much of the people who entertain us sometimes, and fail to see them as fully human? I know I’ve been guilty of that sometimes. And it’s devastating to think of the effect this can have on an artist who is simply trying to put a creative spin on their own life experience.
15. Thou Lovely Source of True Delight
(FromRedemption Songs, 2005)
Redemption Songs was the band’s attempt to enter the “worship music” conversation by putting a fresh spin on some old hymns, rather than kowtowing to their label’s pressure to simply write some contemporary praise anthems. It meant more to the band to highlight the texts of hymns, some of which we’d been singing for ages but perhaps had forgotten to stop and ponder the meaning of, and others which had been long forgotten, and only recently unearthed and given new melodies and instrumentation by the artist collective Indelible Grace, in which Dan had participated. The band does a transcendent job with their arrangement here, on a hymn I’d certainly never heard of before, that is now one of my all-time favorites. Again, it’s the confessional lyrics and the song’s willingness to admit that its prayer is coming from a very troubled and disheartened place that resonates with me – this isn’t the commercialized brand of Christianity where you’re supposed to get yourself all cleaned up and looking like you’re not in need of saving just to set foot inside the sanctuary. Jars of Clay was very much on a twangy folk music kick when they recorded both Who We Are Instead and this album, and you can hear their reverence for some of the folk and country greats that came before them in the gentle but sublime steel guitar that Steve Mason plays on this one.
16. Mirrors & Smoke
(FromGood Monsters, 2006)
Jars of Clay and Sixpence None the Richer seem to have been good buds from the very beginning. Sixpence was just getting its start while the members of Jars were in college, and one of Jars’ first gigs was opening for the band – this was back in the day when Sixpence’s fanbase was still pretty underground and they had yet to score an unlikely mainstream hit of their own. I bring this up because Dan Haseltine and Sixpence lead singer Leigh Nash have traded favors on numerous occasions, showing up to pitch in vocals on each other’s songs, and these two voices together are pretty much always a recipe for greatness. On Good Monsters, the band dropped a surprisingly riff-heavy country/rock song on us late in the album, with Dan and Leigh pulling off a sort of June and Johnny Cash-inspired duet, in which a man goes through all sorts of ridiculous machinations to communicate to a woman that he loves her, while the woman just sort of shrugs them off as silly and superfluous, yet she knows his love for him is the real deal despite his botched attempts to show it. It’s kind of romantic, in a very self-deprecating way.
17. If You Love Her
In addition to re-recording the 18 fan favorites than were voted on for 20, the band also threw in two new songs, both of which I believe were considered for Inland but later shelved, but which fit the mostly acoustic vibe of the 20 project quite well. The second of these two was an arresting ballad, full of intertwining finger-picked guitars and beautiful vocal harmonies and some overlapping lyrics here and there (that I still haven’t managed to make out all of – let’s get the official lyrics online, people!), as the band implored Christians to put their money where their mouths were in terms of actually loving and caring for the least of these. The “her” in this song isn’t a girl that the listener is pining for – if I understand the song correctly, it’s the Bride of Christ, which essentially means all of us. This resonates with work that the band has done with charities like Blood:Water Mission to make sure not just that the Gospel is preached in third world countries, but that actual, practical work is being done to better their lives, such as giving them sustainable water sources – simple things that help enable communities to thrive on their own instead of depending on outside assistance that comes with strings attached. The band chose to close out their career (at least for the foreseeable future) with a lovingly stated call to action – don’t just pay lip service to the idea of loving Jesus. Get out there and do some tangible good for the people he loves (which I believe is ALL OF THEM).
18. Light Gives Heat
(FromGood Monsters, 2006)
Eight years prior to the release of “If You Love Her”, the band was pondering the darker side of such things as evangelism and missionary work, wondering if perhaps some of us weren’t in it for the right reasons, and if we in the West were guilty of the “white savior” complex where, in the supposed name of God, we’d end up trampling all over people’s customs and cultures just to get them saved, leaving them with a theology that confused holiness with the outward appearance of being Westernized. This is heavy stuff, and the band quickly gets our attention by setting the stage with the melodic cry of a child in an unknown (at least to me) foreign language. Dropping a children’s choir into a Christian rock ballad is a risky move, because that sort of thing can get schmaltzy fast, but I love that it’s never translated into some sort of a pithy, inspirational English phrase. It’s simply the voices of people who are in need of help, but who are also every bit as deserving of their dignity and their right to self-determination as we are. I love how the band managed to craft such a profound and sneakily challenging song on a topic that could have been a political minefield, and certainly a topic that wasn’t getting as much play in their circles as it seems to be a decade later, when at least some of us are taking the scars of colonialism and slavery and such a lot more seriously. Most Christian rock still isn’t anywhere near this woke over ten years later.
(FromIf I Left the Zoo, 1999)
I could have held a grudge against this song for giving me horribly misplaced expectations about what If I Left the Zoo was going to sound like, but it’s such a fun and awesomely heavy song (by Jars standards, at least) that I quickly got over it. First hearing this one at a concert a few months prior to the release of Zoo, I was led to believe the album was going to be more of an aggressive rock record, when in fact a lot of it was more mid-tempo and poppy and playful, which as I said before was not something that immediately got my attention. The oddball piano intro to this song (which sounded like something out of an old scary movie) and the subsequent one-two punch of the loud drums and deliciously bent electric guitar riffs were pretty awesome things to behold, and the song’s lyrics were fittingly dark, describing a rather legalistic person practically being fitted for his own noose due to his inability to comprehend God’s grace being more than adequate to cover our mistakes. I had lived that life. I had been that judgmental person who found the finger pointing right back at myself for nasty habits I couldn’t seem to kick. I was waiting for that axe to fall, as the song says, and couldn’t quite come to grips with the fact that I had already been spared the execution. That’s not a fun way to live. To me, this song represents a turning point in my faith where it became less fundamentalist and more progressive. I’m sure those words probably strike fear in the hearts of Bible Belt Christians who never quite knew what to do with this band anyway… but eh, I haven’t been worried about trying to please any of those types for quite some time now. (Also: I have no clue what’s up with the football imagery in this song’s music video. The Bible Belt probably liked that aspect of it, though.)
(From The Long Fall Back to Earth, 2009)
I had another excellent song at #20 before making the painstaking decision to swap it out for this upbeat electro-rock number from the band’s unabashed retro pop revival record. This one was downright insidious. Remember how I mentioned that Jars of Clay often found themselves embroiled in petty controversies? Those usually arose from misinterpreted lyrics, and their song “Closer” got caught in the crossfire when it was first released, due to the line “It’s cold and I miss your skin” being misread as being about sex. That was a simple, goofy song about a lonely person longing for human connection of any kind. But the mad genius came in the form of this song placed right before “Closer” on The Long Fall Back to Earth the following year, which as it turns out, was about sex and none of the gatekeepers apparently caught on. They veiled it in such a classy metaphor that I don’t think a lot of us thought to think about the potential implications of lines such as “We dress up for Eden”. What’s really great about this one is that the band isn’t trying to be sneaky or naughty here. The Long Fall is about human intimacy in all forms – friendships, family, community, and yes, romantic and marital relationships. So there’s a much deeper level to this one than just, “Huh huh, they’re talking about nekkid people.” It’s about the unashamed intimacy between a couple that should have no reason to put up any pretense. That’s a beautiful, God-ordained thing, and it kind of makes the Church look silly for being such bluenoses about the topic of sex that we shy away from acknowledging how it can be a blessing or – dare I say it – even an act of worship in its proper context. You could of course, read the metaphor in this song as being about a return to innocence or something else. But yeah, this is basically Jars of Clay’s song about righteously gettin’ it on. (I’m slightly sorry that I had to ruin the surprise for you… but it’s been ten years, I think the statute of limitations on spoilers has expired by now.)
Limiting this list to only 20 songs was truly agonizing. But this article could go on forever and ever if I don’t cap it somewhere. So I’m going to leave you with a handful of Honorable Mentions, sans explanation. Even this is still just the tip of the iceberg, folks.
Liquid (from Jars of Clay, 1995)
Tea and Sympathy (from Much Afraid, 1997)
Frail (from Much Afraid, 1997)
Can’t Erase It (from If I Left the Zoo, 1999)
Fly Farther (from The White Elephant Sessions, 2000)
Something Beautiful (from The Eleventh Hour, 2002)
Revolution (from The Eleventh Hour, 2002)
Amazing Grace (from Who We Are Instead, 2003)
Trouble Is (from Who We Are Instead, 2003)
Faith Enough (from Who We Are Instead, 2003)
Jealous Kind (from Who We Are Instead, 2003)
Work (from Good Monsters, 2006)
Dead Man (Carry Me) (from Good Monsters, 2006)
Oh My God (from Good Monsters, 2006)
Peace Is Here (from Christmas Songs, 2007)
Headphones (from The Long Fall Back to Earth, 2009)
Eyes Wide Open (from The Shelter, 2010)
Age of Immature Mistakes (from Inland, 2013)
Loneliness & Alcohol (from Inland, 2013)
Left Undone (from Inland, 2013)