Everybody hits a rough patch. And I mean everyone.
It’s true, whether you like it or not. Sometimes the patches are short (Ronald Reagan hamstringing Gerald Ford, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” the Minnesota Twins and June 2010), and sometimes they’re long (Barack Obama in 2009, Kate from “Lost,” the Minnesota Twins and Scott Baker). They happen to the best of us.
And they happen to the best musicians.
This is also true. Depending on your point of view, The Beatles were in the rough during parts of “Let It Be” and all of those tracks no one remembers on the second half of “The White Album.” Elvis had 1962-1967. Oasis had … well, most of their career, now, I guess. Anyway, the point is that as great as “Help!” or “Burning Love” or (less so) “Champagne Supernova” are, that doesn’t mean you can’t fall from grace – often deservedly so.
The trouble came for me when I had to admit that it’s happened to my band. And by my band, I mean Jars of Clay.
Known to some as the best band to play sporadically on CCM stations and to many more as “those guys who did ‘Flood,’” Jars’ debut and self-titled album came out in 1995 and went platinum, even garnering a fair amount of crossover secular success with its alt-folky sound. However, the band really started progressing as their fan base faded into a smaller but still devoted group.
During this time, the band proved their ability in genre-morphing, releasing among other things the darkly-tinged, lush power pop of “Much Afraid,” the quirky rock experimentalism of “If I Left The Zoo” and the rootsy, gospel-influenced “Who We Are Instead.”
The band regained some (but not all) of its past popularity with 2006’s “Good Monsters,” the band’s most unabashedly rock ‘n’ roll record to date. The album has since become a live staple.
Through it all, Jars proved that they had all of the qualities of a truly great band. They were musically inventive and original, able to change their style while still retaining the quintessential Jars of Clay sound. Perhaps most distinctly, they were capable of creating lyrics that are thought provoking, poetic, and far and away the best in the Christian market (and among the best in any market).
I say all of this to say that I was as excited as the rest when “Good Monster’s” follow-up, “The Long Fall Back To Earth,” hit the stands. Why shouldn’t I have been? The band was coming off of “Good Monsters,” which I recently listed (along with another Jars album) as the second best album of the last decade. Throw in a preview EP hinting at some electronica-influenced beeps and boops, and you had one excited Jars fan in 2009.
Then the album came out.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying the album was terrible. It was just such a new experience for me to genuinely dislike a Jars song – and not one, but several. Even more jarring was that some of the album’s clunkers were packaged right alongside some of the band’s best work, and the fact that the band seemed most proud of some of the worst tracks.
It was like seeing Roger Ebert craft a poorly written, four-star review of Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo.
To me, Jars of Clay did not like, and especially did not write or play, bad music. It simply didn’t happen.
But it did happen.
Still, I was hoping it was just a minor flaw, a small blemish on what has otherwise been an excellent career. But I had my doubts, and those doubts increased earlier this year as Jars released the first two “Live at Gray Matters” EPs, featuring live studio versions of album hits. The first EP was all stuff from “The Long Fall,” including a truly bad, off-key rendition of “Don’t Stop.” The second was all from their first album, by now a retread several times over (I looked it up – the band has now officially released seven different versions of “Flood”).
Also earlier this year came the announcement that the band would be releasing a new album in the fall, titled “The Shelter.” While such a revelation would normally be accompanied by great joy on my part, the revelation was tempered by an announcement that I found puzzling: the band would be accompanied by a large number of CCM artists, including names like Mac Powell, Amy Grant, Sarah Groves and, perhaps most puzzling, TobyMac.
I am generally of the opinion that the current Christian contemporary music landscape is a brutal, barren wasteland, pockmarked only occasionally by small oases of talent, so this was not encouraging news.
“Out of My Hands,” the pre-release single, did little to assuage my fears. While the track has grown on me a little since I first listened to it, the collaboration with Mike Donehey of Tenth Avenue North is unnecessary, and Leigh Nash’s backing vocals only serve to hearken me back to the much better work she did with the band on “Mirrors and Smoke,” from “Good Monsters.”
Worst of all, it was just pretty boring. The music is not striking, the verse lyrics are nothing to write home about, and the chorus is repetitive and uncreative. It reminds me of nothing more than “The Long Fall’s” “Two Hands,” one of the worst songs from that effort.
So, it was with some trepidation that I listened to a pre-release stream of “The Shelter.” And, as much as it pains me to admit it, Jars of Clay has now officially hit the rough patch. And it is rough. In fact, “Out of My Hands” is probably the album’s best track.
One reason the introduction of this article is so long is that I’m not entirely sure how to actually review the album. How do you review an album when all the songs sound the same? When every track suffers from the same flaws?
The music is entirely mundane. It’s so unremarkable that it’s hard to even recall it. It just slips right out of your mind as soon as the song ends. Guitar riffs are nearly unheard of. The creative flair heard in past songs like “Goodbye, Goodnight,” “Closer” and “Work” is simply absent. The stuck-in-your-head artistry seen in tracks like “Dead Man” or “The Eleventh Hour”? It’s just not there.
There are a few moments where the band makes an attempt. These moments usually lie in the beginning of a track, most notably on “Eyes Wide Open’s” bluegrass intro or “Run in the Night’s” soft, eerie opening, but all such moments are either obliterated by sheer repetition or eventually drowned out by the song’s chorus.
And don’t even get me started on the choruses. Literally every single song is dragged down by its chorus, which is generally one or two simplistic phrases repeated ad nauseum. What is already inherently sketchy is made worse by the fact that so many guests are tacked onto each track that each chorus ends up degenerating into a sing-songy, faux-anthemic chant that serves as the track’s fade out.
Elsewhere, the contributors hardly fare better. Frontman Dan Haseltine seems barely present on some songs, and the other voices often feel thrown together, complementary styles be darned. It’s a sloppy, shockingly amateurish affair.
And then there’s the lyrics. The verses are OK, but only OK. They try for Jars’ former poetry without actually reaching it. Take this sample from the album’s opener, “Small Rebellions”:
“God of the worn and tattered
All of Your people matter
Give us more than words to speak
Cause we are hearts and arms that reach
And love climbs up and down the human ladder”
Can you see it? They were going for something there, but all I can muster is a “nice try.” This kind of almost-but-not-quite approach perpetuates the entire album – well, except for the choruses, where there doesn’t appear to be any effort of any kind. Consider these gems:
“Where You lead us
We will follow
Where You lead us
We will follow You” – from “We Will Follow”
“In the shelter of each other
We will live
We will live
(Never walk alone)
In the shelter of each other
We will live
We will live
(Your arms are all around us)” – from the title track
“No greater love
No greater love
Can you say there’s no greater love?
No greater love
No greater love
Can you say there’s no greater love?” – from “No Greater Love”
Now imagine these repeated three or four times over, and you have the ends of each of these songs. The whole album is like this. It’s painful.
If you’re reading this and have never listened to Jars of Clay before, I’m sorry. I may have put you off of a band which has spent most of its decade and a half in existence putting out great, great music. But such music is simply nowhere to be found on “The Shelter.” Nowhere will you hear the thought-provoking lyrics and musical versatility the band is known for, and for that, we’re all the losers.
And yet, Jars has still put out a lot more good albums than bad ones, and the superfan in me has to hold out hope that this rough patch is indeed just that: a patch, a stretch of bumpy road, something that they can pull out of as they continue to produce.
So, with that in mind, I’d encourage you to join me. When Oct. 5 rolls around, get on iTunes or Amazon.com or head in to your local Christian bookstore. However, instead of picking up “The Shelter,” buy an old Jars of Clay album instead. I’ll be picking up “The Eleventh Hour;” if you don’t have it, I’d recommend “If I Left the Zoo.”
It’s one small way we can show support for a good band that’s not doing so well right now.