We Scare Because We Care.
Written: Aug 12, 2006 (Updated Oct 11, 2006)
a Very Helpful Review
by the Epinions community
The Bottom Line: It's different from their past albums, it takes some getting used to, and ultimately, it's a triumph. (Come on, this is Jars. Did you expect anything else from me?)
"How do you describe Jars of Clay?"
This question was posed by a message board user on the fan site Jarchives.com a few days ago. And it seemed like it should be an easy one for me to answer, given that they've been my all-time favorite band for a good ten years now. I have no shortage of descriptive things to say about them. However, when given the challenge of succinctly describing them in casual conversation when asked what sort of music I like or something like that, I find it to be quite a challenge. Many people would call them a "Christian rock" band and leave it at that, but over the last few years, I've become increasingly frustrated with that descriptor, as it limits expectations of what types of songs they can play and what those songs have to be about. Especially since 2003, when the band took a turn away from stadium-sized pop/rock tunes and toward a sparser folk sound that found them feeling a lot more comfortable in their skin, I became irritated when people would still refer to them as a rock band and expect new albums to be similar to their ever-popular debut album (which, ironically, had little to no electric guitars on it, just a mega-hit single and several other rightful classics that belong on, but not necessarily at the top of, a list of the band's best works). But despite the expectations of some ornery "fans" and their record label, the acoustic rebirth of Who We Are Instead and the thoughtful, meditative hymns album Redemption Songs were well-received albums that seemed to cement a permanent change for the band.
But, surprise! Along comes their next album, Good Monsters (due out September 5, 2006), and the band dares to claim it as their first "rock album". I was baffled by this at first, but not disappointed - these guys have dabbled in several different styles and usually offered a unique and melodically memorable take on each, no matter how heavy or how light the approach. The problem in the past has usually been the expectation that an album would rock, only for it to be judged by impatient fans on first listen, based on the tempos and the intensity of the guitar strumming. With the exception of The Eleventh Hour, most fans expecting such things were left in the lurch, and this caused them to not really give excellent albums like Much Afraid a decent chance. Now that they've declared the intent to make a rock album, Good Monsters seems to deliver on that promise - it doesn't leave out the well-textured, soul-searching ballads that they also excel at, but there are no less than six tracks here which do well in employing electric guitars and driving rhythms in order to help make their point. It's not hard rock, and it certainly isn't mindless noise-making - you can expect a lot of color and musical savvy in almost any song that the band puts out. But to those who weren't impressed with the band's last two albums, this one might very well scream "comeback" and win back a lot of fans who have been iffy about the band since the late 90's. In it, you can hear some of the free-spirited quirkiness of If I Left the Zoo and the polished pop/rock of The Eleventh Hour, but there are several moments where the album takes on an organic life all its own, too. It never "sounds like" the first album, but I'd say its impact on first listen is comparably strong.
Thankfully, Good Monsters should also be a thrill for fans like me who have loved the band every step of the way. As with every album, the songs are intelligently written and there's a lot of variation - you won't confuse any two songs with each other. Jars of Clay is a group that has always been known for thoughtful, poetic lyrics, and while they started out being relatively straightforward on their debut album, some found that the lyrics got too cryptic on Much Afraid and the albums that followed it. I was never bothered by this because I love having cryptic words to decode, but at the same time, I'll admit that there's something more urgent and soul-piercing about the more outspoken, confessional, soul-piercing approach of Who We Are Instead. I'd say that both songwriting styles permeate Good Monsters, allowing a way in for listeners who haven't quite made up their mind on the whole faith thing yet but can appreciate the questions that the band grapples with, and also presenting Christian listeners with a few real humdingers in terms of songs that really prompt you to re-evaluate the way you think about God.
This might be the first Jars album that truly poses more questions than answers - not that they want to hide the answers; it's just that they've realized the need we all have to confront our tough questions instead of hiding in a sheltered bubble where we don't have to deal with them. The band does this in a very non-preachy manner, and if any fingers are being pointed here, it's at themselves. It's a vulnerable record, one that I think does a great job of blowing away the preconceived notion that Christians are always these smug, well-behaved people who can prescribe the perfect solution to all of life's little problems. That they can approach such delicate topics while being unafraid to have a big, brave sound on several of the tracks just further illustrates their versatility. The very title Good Monsters seems to be a reference to this theme - it personifies the things that frighten us, but these things will ultimately help us grow and be less ignorant and cowardly if we face them. It's a message that puts Christians on the hot seat (just a little bit) for creating this environment in which people have to put a face on and pretend nothing's wrong, or that God will immediately fix everything if the words are arranged correctly in prayer, and it's also a message that reaches out to those who are considering Christianity but think they've gotta "get all their stuff together" before they can be part of "the club" or whatever, due to the way they've seen some Christians act. It might even work as an analogy to the Christian music industry, which the band has been at odds with throughout their career due to its unfair expectations and backwards marketing tactics that encourage artists of faith to "play it safe" and not really challenge anyone. By not facing what scares us, we only become more scared. Regardless of what religion (if any at all) you subscribe to, that's a good life lesson for anyone.
Sorry, I get on a bit of a soapbox when the whole "Christian bubble" topic comes up. This is a music review, so let's move on to discussing the tasty smorgasbord of songs that appear on this album.
Now all the demons look like prophets
And I'm living out every word they speak...
Ignore the four little electronic blips that count off the song - this is a pretty organic record all the way through. Steve Mason and Matt Odmark's electric guitars immediately get revved up, and there are strong drums as well, in a manner similar to The Eleventh Hour's "Revolution", but a bit more serious and less goofy. Lead singer Dan Haseltine first appears as a desperate man, showing no signs of willingness to make a commitment, and admitting to a sense of weary loneliness as he admits, "Just in case, I will leave my things packed, so I can run away". This leads to a chorus, which is a repeated, impassioned cry, "Do you know what I mean when I say I don't want to be alone?" This gets more intense, as does the tasty lead guitar part, as the song chugs along toward the end, where it ends on Charlie Lowell's calm piano as Dan repeats a telling line from earlier in the song: "I have no fear of drowning; it's the breathing that's taking all this work.
Dead Man (Carry Me)
I woke up from a dream about an empty funeral
But it's better than a party full of people I don't really know...
The beginning of this album is definitely very preoccupied with death. Thankfully, the music itself is quite lively - even a lot of fun in this instance. This is the If I Left the Zoo spirit that I mentioned earlier, though in the case of this song, it's translated into a stabbing guitar riff and a ridiculously danceable drum beat a la Franz Ferdinand. Takes some getting used to, but I'm reminded of the first time I heard "Unforgetful You", or even U2's song "Vertigo" - songs that were a little more playful and cheeky than the usual output of the band in question, but which refused to let go once you allowed them to sink in and expand your personal vision of what the band could do. There might be some odd lines in this one ("I'm looking at my body through a new spy satellite"? Come on, you guys can do better than that!), but the melody and delivery of the verses are solid gold, as is the observation in the second verse about how an empty funeral beats a party full of superficial strangers. If Dan sounded ready to die in "Work", he's admitting here that he's already dead, and as the jam-packed chorus breezes by, defying you to resist singing along, the song becomes a simple plea for spiritual rebirth. By the time it gets to the bridge, with its tasty drum fills and Dan's falsetto (amusingly echoed by what sounds like Steve's voice run through a vocorder), if you're not at least tapping your toe along to the beat, then you must be the person without a pulse that Dan speaks of.
All My Tears
So weep not for me, my friend
When my time below does end
For my life belongs to Him
Who will raise the dead again...
I know some Christian music fans are going to run screaming in the other direction when they hear this, but Jars went and covered a country song. This one was written by veteran songwriter Julie Miller, and popularized by Emmylou Harris in the 90's. Both are more the "alt-country" type, and Jars has already demonstrated a good deal of country/folk influence on their last two albums, so this shouldn't be a surprise. Besides, their version of this modern spiritual is actually quite poppy, with its glistening piano and electric guitars which sing out a memorable refrain. Sonically, it could have fit well on The Eleventh Hour, but lyrically, it'd be right at home on Redemption Songs. The song brings a silver lining to this little trilogy of "death songs" that opens the album, urging loved ones not to cry for him when he passes away - "It don't matter where you bury me, 'cause I'll be home and I'll be free". Something about the way that the melody loops back around to where it started makes the song sound timeless, as if it could have been sung around a campfire a hundred years ago, and somehow the modern wall-of-sound doesn't dull the emotion inherent in the song one bit. Charlie treats us to a tasty piano solo in the middle, Dan gets to let loose a bit vocally near the end of the song, and a chillingly good vocal breakdown provides an excellent outro, humming along with the main melody of the song, right up until the abrupt ending: "Oooooooh... It don't matter!"
Even Angels Cry
No flood warnings, still the waters rise
Flowers through asphalt, diamonds in the pockets of your eyes
Turn your face and hide...
I can tell that this song is going to take some time and effort for a lot of Jars fans to digest it. There's always at least one such song - "Sad Clown" used to be one of those for me, and then it finally revealed its sad, subtle beauty. This song is slowly doing that for me. I will say that its clumsy fade-in with brushed drums and only the faintest instrumentation to offer a hint of a tune, does kind of waste the opportunity for a good transition provided by the sudden ending of "All My Tears". The title of the song, which turns out to be a condolence offered to a hurting female friend at the end of the chorus, also does seem to be a little too "Pax TV" for most folks to handle. But looking past that, it's an effective song of comfort in a time where comfort is nowhere to be found. The texture of it is wonderful, with the careful percussion, the mournful electric guitar calling out into the night, and the banjo plunking along (I think Matt Odmark's picked up that instrument in recent years, but I never know whether it's Matt or Steve on the stringed instruments, and I tend to attribute most of the cool guitar stuff to Steve, so it's time I gave Matt a fair shake). I like the message of the song, because it's urging someone who believes it's better to save face at all costs that crying is a normal and healthy outlet. Too often we ask God to stop the flow of tears for us, but sometimes it's more helpful to ask that God allow them to start, because this is where the healing process begins. I love how the song just trails off unexpectedly after the final, hushed words: "Please don't worry... not tonight."
There Is a River
So give up the right
To control the waves that empty out your life...
Something about the way this song breaks in immediately, starting with its chorus, doesn't quite work for me. Maybe it's a bit too obvious of a relief, coming too early, and I kind of think the whole "There is a river that washes you clean" thing is a bit of a cliche, but I'll let it slide, because I'm intrigued by the possible meanings of the second line, "There is a tree that marks the places you've been". The song does a decent job of addressing our control issues, reminding us that sometimes we take responsibility for more grief than we're really meant to bear - it's not something that we can atone for on our own. I like how Dan doesn't tiptoe around that reality that the tears we cry are often "the wages for things you've done", but he's clear that what we've started isn't up to us to finish - the seeming paradox that is central to the Christian faith. The song definitely picks up steam as it goes, with a glimmering guitar solo during the bridge that continues behind the final chorus, and excellent use of background vocals - these elements turn what initially seemed like a very plain chorus into something sublime in under four minutes.
All the giants wake from their sleep
And roll outside of safety's keep
And the pain makes them feel so alive...
I love the jittery, syncopated feel of this up-tempo song. It's like they took the classic "Jars of Clay" strum and distorted the rhythm of it just a bit to give the song a bit of nervous attitude. "Do you know what you are?" is the question asked in this tune, which at first appears to be cryptic as it talks about "good monsters" who seem to seem to be going about typical scary activities at first. It's the implicit distinction between them and the bad monsters, and the way Dan describes people reacting to these good monsters (mostly doing their best to ignore them), that makes the song intriguing. Suddenly to evil of complacency is the standard, the thing people are comfortable with, and the scary things that people won't face turn out to be the things that they need. As Dan explains in the chorus, where the words ring longer and clearer, almost at odds with the jerky rhythm, "We are bored of all the things we know." If this is in fact a reference to the state of Christian music, as some have rumored it to be, then freakin' AMEN, brother, because I totally agree that Christian radio and most listeners are way too happy to just keep regurgitating the easy stuff. There's just no room for honesty and tough questions any more. If this is in fact the band's last album for a label that has tried to back them into a happy-go-lucky corner on several occasions, then I'll say that this is a fitting parting shot to give to the industry as a whole. (Not that they'll disappear off of the CCM map entirely if they choose to go the indie or mainstream route - they just might find a different audience and hopefully they'll be surrounded by such frustrations a little less often.)
Oh My God
Sometimes I cannot forgive
These days mercy cuts so deep
If the world was how it should be
Maybe I could get some sleep...
At six minutes, this deceptively mellow song might be the longest studio track that the band has recorded, other than "Frail". And if that track length leads you to expect another confessional epic in the vein of "Worlds Apart" or "Silence", then congratulations, you're barking up the right tree. Except that you're still not going to be prepared for this one. You might think you've discovered the gimmick early on, when Dan, in his best "pretty boy" falsetto (the voice we heard a lot more of on Much Afraid, but he's taken a grittier approach since then, for the most part) softly cries out to God in a Psalm-like manner about disease and betrayal and whatnot. Oh, I get it, he's literally addressing God as "my God", and therefore he's not taking the Lord's name in vain when he says, "Oh my God", how clever! Yeah, that's how it worked for dc Talk in "So Help Me God". But that's not all there is to the song - if it just trailed off after its initial two and a half minutes, which are relatively easygoing, it might just end up as a footnote in the Jars of Clay catalogue. What's surprising is that is slows down even more in the middle, as Dan starts to quietly stack up a huge laundry list of grievances, things that are wrong with the world, that would give even the most devout Christians pause in terms of trying to explain them away. As this list goes on, the cry becomes louder and louder, the music speeds up, and before you know it things have swelled to massive proportions, with the drums pounding in your ears like a fast pulse when you're scared to death of something. It's an eloquently composed list of lamentations, and it screams at us to not ignore it and dismiss it as just another sensitive ballad. No resolution comes at the end, just the jarring chord after the phrase "Oh my God!" rings out three more times.
Shoot a dream in your arm, and sleep away
It's not the stuff that kills you that keeps your life at bay...
It's a bit weird, after how that last song screamed at us to wake up, that this one wanders about in a sedative-induced stupor. I guess that's kind of the point, as Charlie's loungey keyboards and the light tapping of the drums play along in a slow 6/8 rhythm, but it does seem a bit anticlimactic, kind of like when "Weighed Down" ditched its potential and trailed off into nothingness on Much Afraid. This song actually reminds me a bit of Much Afraid's melancholy moodiness, which isn't a bad thing - Dan's lyrics are more metaphorical, not talking about actual drugs, but referring to the "placeboes" we inject ourselves with, the useless distractions that allows us not to face the outside world. The "surprise", then, is that every now and then one of us manages to wake up and stumble out into the daylight and face what's really going on. You know how some songs have a verse that just runs headlong into the chorus with no break in the lyrics, just a continued sentence that leads right into the refrain? This song is kind of like that, but the shift to the chorus (which is just the song's title repeated a few times, stretched out into multiple syllables in a wobbly sort of way) happens mid-word, in a manner of speaking. It's interesting in terms of defying traditional song structure, but it also causes the song to lack a defining hook, with the closest thing to a climax being the string-drenched bridge.
Take Me Higher
It took a lot to turn away
Blood and water from one side
It took your eyes to stare me down
It took the truth to set me free...
A sudden jolt of electricity wakes us up here - you can tell from that intro that this one's gonna be a rocker. Strangely enough, though an electric guitar riff revs up not long after that, this isn't a rocker that aims to captivate us by virtue of its fast tempo - the speed of it is actually fairly languid. It takes the "slow rock jam" approach, with nearly acoustic verses that unfortunately lead into the most inane chorus that the band has ever committed to a record. Alright, so maybe "I need You, I need You, I need You, You're all I'm living for" was pretty poor a few albums ago (that song had great verses, though), but I still think "Take me higher than the sun, yeah, you are the only one" is far worse. For one thing, I hate it when songs say "You are the only one" without qualifying that by saying what exclusive thing the person (or in this case, God) is actually doing for them that no one else can do. A simple "who can" to bridge it back to the request "take me higher than the sun" would've worked, but they opted to be lazy here. And what on Earth does it even mean to be "higher than the sun", anyway? Altitude is a relative term in outer space, so if you just went beyond the sun in the other direction, you'd just be on the other side of the solar system's orbit, and Earth would catch up with you in six months. Big whoop. Thankfully, Steve Mason comes in to save the day as his noodling during the quiet bridge leads into a sudden outpouring of instrumental passion that rivals some of the most raucous moments on The Elms's latest record. Awesomely, this guitar solo doesn't just play nice and quiet down when the chorus comes back - it keeps on jamming until the song fades out and all we can hear is Charlie's piano, and that's a good thing, because the guitar and piano are way more interesting than that silly chorus by a long shot.
Mirrors & Smoke
Give you flowers, give you candy to even out the guilt
I send you greeting cards with messages that I could never write
Rivers flow into the oceans, and oceans never fill
I want to let you know me, but I know I never will...
Time for the biggest surprise on the record - I'm actually glad that this one appears late in the game, rather than playing all of the trump cards early. The insistent grumble of an electric guitar reminds me of a motorcycle getting revved up for a trip out on some backcountry highway, and if you're getting an "outlaw" vibe from this one that makes you think of good old Johnny Cash, that's no coincidence. This is a fine slab of country-rock at its finest, complete with rolling drums, a slight hint of Gospel in Charlie's organ playing, and a brilliantly worded confession of what it's like to be a total spiritual screw-up. Dan, while he not be able to fully muster up the same sort of gritty brokenness that Cash could, makes an apt confession to God that "I want to kiss your lips, but I know I never will". Midway through the song, when the strum of an acoustic guitar joins in to complete the song (usually it's the other way around in rock songs - the acoustic starts off and the electric shows up to fill things in), we get a pleasant surprise when Leigh Nash, former lead singer of Sixpence None the Richer joins Dan for a slick, conversation-style duet, playing June Carter to Dan's Johnny. Her voice seems almost too sweet and fragile for this spiritualized outlaw tale, but she plays her role well as the reassuring voice of God, not denying that Dan has withheld his love from her and that hurts, but also indicating that she feels each attempt and it does mean something to her. I thought these two sounded beautiful together when they performed "With Every Breath" for the first City on a Hill album, but this song blows that one out of the water, simply because how many male/female duets do you hear on upbeat songs like this that a band can totally jam out on? Leigh is touring with Jars this fall, and mark my words, this is going to be a highlight of their set.
Light Gives Heat
Heroes from the West
We don't know you, we know best
But this is not a test...
The voice of an African child singing in a foreign tongue at the beginning of this deceptively mellow tune might deceive you at first into thinking this is going to be one of those cute "Jesus loves the little children, send some money to Compassion International" sorts of anthems. Little kids are kind of a cliché in inspirational music, so it's easy to cringe when they show up. (To be fair, Jars has used the voice of children on "Like a Child" and "He" from their debut, and it worked out to great effect in both songs.) But this song's got a lot more of its mind. As its light, but uniquely exotic rhythm gets going and some gentle slides on Steve's guitar create a mournful atmosphere, Dan sings about the mission field, and how good we Westerners make ourselves feel when we can fly out there for a few weeks during the summer and put smiles on a few faces. This obviously hits close to home, as the band has started the Blood: Water Mission as a means of providing wells to African villages in need of water. And they're not knocking their own organization; they're just recognizing that sometimes, those of us with the best of intentions can still be in it for the wrong reasons. We might throw money or even a few weeks of our time at such a project, but what does it mean to really feel compassionate for these people? Do we care that they truly know how much Christ loves them, or do we just use Christianity as an excuse to convert them to Western ways of thinking? Is this bigoted, even racist of us? As Dan poses these questions, nearly every line seems to punch me in the gut due to how well-written this song is. The talk of setting fires, burning crosses, and mental segregation in the chorus, and the enigmatic conclusion that "light gives heat", are going to take some time to fully understand in context - this is some deep-seated stuff we're dealing with here. But one thing rings loud and clear in the voice of that child, even though I don't speak his language - "Have compassion. I'm a person. Don't ignore me." It's enough to send chills down my spine when that one child suddenly multiplies into an entire chorus of them somewhere around the third chorus, and that's when it begins to come clear, as Dan asks, "Will you teach us how to love, see the things you see, walk the road you walk, feel the pain that you feel?" Because that's what compassion truly means - to suffer with someone. A tall order for the comfortable and profitable world that most of the Western Church resides in, but that's actually what that Jesus guy was all about.
Water Under the Bridge
There are times meant for breaking, words to ignore
And a debt to our souls when our skin is at war
If leaving were freedom
Well, we'd both walk right out of that door...
Phew. I almost needed a mellow comedown after that last song. Most Jars albums have closed with a song that takes me a little longer to appreciate - this one is no exception, being a mid-tempo, piano-driven tune with an easy-going ¾ rhythm, and a chorus that has the unfortunate side effect of reminding me of the slogan for Maxwell House Coffee (it's the way that Dan sings "'Til the last drop of water flows under the bridge"). But listening more carefully, Charlie's piano meshes nicely with the subdued electric guitars here, and the lyrics are actually quite powerful, depicting a married couple at a crossroads, where maybe they're starting to feel like the passion is dying, and Dan admits, "I do not love you the way I did when we met". It's natural that the way you relate to a person changes over time, but this isn't saying that he's falling out of love, just that it becomes easy to get lazy and take a person for granted - this song is a promise to try and do all that "work" that he was afraid of at the beginning of the album. It's a song of long-term commitment, sung in the middle of that commitment, instead of the beginning, which is where most love songs reside, easily tossing out always-and-forevers because everything looks like a fairy tale at that point and it's easy to get swept away. Staying and hashing things out in a world that says, "If you get bored, just go get a new wife" isn't easy, and generally not as "sexy" of a subject for a love song, but I think a lot of married folks out there know that once you've had a lot of offenses and misunderstandings and arguments and they all become "water under the bridge", that's where you learn to actively love each other instead of just saying you do because you feel giddy. Anyway, the one flaw in the writing here is that I'm not sure how the "last drop" of water could ever flow under a bridge - wouldn't it stop flowing and either evaporate or saturate the ground at that point? But still, the imagery of water under the bridge as a past hurt provides a nice link back to the waters that rose in "Even Angels Cry", and the drowning that was imminent in "Work", and shoot, this band's biggest hit was "Flood". There are some themes that a songwriter just can't escape.
It probably goes without saying that this album is currently my #1 for the year 2006, beating out excellent discs by Mute Math and The Listening. But it had to earn that spot - this isn't just a fan boy gushing about the mere fact that his existing favorite artist released another album. Besides, Jars of Clay has consistently made my Top 10 with every album, but they haven't had a #1 on my year-end list since Much Afraid in 1997. That's saying a lot for an album that is easily better than 50% of their work (sorry, old-school fans, but that includes the debut album). I still think Much Afraid is their best, followed by If I Left the Zoo, but this one definitely goes head-to-head with Who We Are Instead for the number 3 slot. When a band is consistently this good, it's kind of splitting hairs to argue about which one's the best, anyway. The bottom line is that if you're an existing fan, you have no excuse and should buy this thing the day it comes out. If you're on the fence about Jars because all you know is a few radio singles that you've enjoyed, or if you just like unique and expressive pop/rock bands who aren't afraid to tackle the tough questions, now's the perfect time to dive in. Don't let the Good Monsters frighten you off. They scare because they care.
Dead Man (Carry Me) $1.50
All My Tears $2
Even Angels Cry $1
There Is a River $1
Good Monsters $1.50
Oh My God $1.50
Take Me Higher $1
Mirrors & Smoke $2
Light Gives Heat $2
Water Under the Bridge $1
Dan Haseltine: Lead vocals, occasional percussion
Steve Mason: Electric, acoustic, steel and slide guitars
Matt Odmark: Acoustic and electric guitars, banjo
Charlie Lowell: Piano, keyboards
Jeremy Lutito: Drums (tour only)
Gabe Rushavul: Bass (tour only)
Official Website: http://www.jarsofclay.com
Fan site: http://www.jarchives.com