Jars Of Clay: Who We Are Instead
Genre: Acoustic-driven, artful pop/rock with faith-based lyrics
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- From the first bars of dark, churning guitar that opened Jars Of Clay’s 1995 crossover hit "Flood," it was clear that the Jars were brimming with heady creativity capable of transcending the stylistic boundaries of non-secular pop music. Their open admission of Christianity resulted in mainstream radio’s apathetic response to their subsequent records, stalling the band’s momentum somewhat and limiting them to CCM acceptance. If their new CD Who We Are Instead suffers a similar fate, it will be one that is profoundly undeserved. The disc is an understated and finely crafted piece of work regardless of genre, and a victory in particular for the Christian music industry, which has historically tended toward safe and predictable fare. This package entirely escapes the Christian radio cookie cutter, and, as a result, doesn’t offer an instant taste sensation. Its flavors, however inviting, are subtler and longer lasting, perhaps suited to a slightly more sophisticated palate.
While "Sunny Day" (which borrows a cup of sugar from "Sesame Street") opens the affair tunefully and optimistically, the disc’s overall sound is comprised, tapestry-like, of muted tones and random fragments of country, folk and blues. None of these elements is allowed to dominate; rather, they float in and out, adding texture and a slight surrealism that makes the music more enigmatic than your basic pop-rock recipe. Often, the effect is stark and minimalistic, as on "Only Alive" and "Amazing Grace" (not the hymn), which evokes a Western landscape. The atmosphere of "Jealous Kind" is similarly dusty, but the song morphs midway through into a dreamlike waltz with cello counterpoint before a Sahara-dry slide guitar returns the track to its initial mood. It’s this type of artistic flourish that moves the album beyond the merely adequate. Throughout, the songs suggest the open-ended liberty of Texas singer-songwriter music but with a more cutting-edge production style. This strength could prove the CDs commercial downfall, as the band’s low-key design fails to quickly engage the casual listener. Still, they deliver some highly accessible material such as "Show You Love" and the propulsive "I’m In The Way."
The lyrics here show signs of growing sophistication as well, steering away from standard Christian-ese but sounding no less convicted by doing so. They range from brutally honest - "I’d rather feel the pain all too familiar than be broken by a lover I don’t understand" - to encouraging: "so if you’re waitin’ for love/ well, it’s a promise I’ll keep/ if you don’t mind believing that it changes everything/ then time will never matter." On "Faith Enough," the scriptural concept of God’s strength in our weakness is explored in contradictory lines like "confused enough to know direction/ the sun eclipsed enough to shine/ be still enough to finally tremble/ and see enough to know I’m blind."
Jars Of Clay show maturity and inventiveness on Who We Are Instead, an album that - like the God that inhabits its songs - neither forces itself upon nor reveals itself too eagerly to its listeners. Those who are willing to invest some effort and forego immediate gratification will likely reap rewards from this intriguing collection, created by one of the Christian music world’s brightest lights.
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Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.