Jars of Clay – The Inland Review

It has been almost three years since Jars of Clay released Shelter, a disc which Glenn McCarty of Crosswalk.com heralded as “a clarion call to unity” relative to the Christian community. Lead singer Dan Haseltine noted, “…we were already thinking about a project that would be specific for the church.” But on Inland, their first release as an “indie” band, the central focus is a bit more existential.

In an interview with Hans Schiefelbein, keyboardist Charlie Lowell says of Inland:

It’s where we all live- caring about work, family, faith, doubt, the world around us- but really struggling to connect them and find lasting meaning out of them all. So we approached this record process with that in mind- our goal was to write in those specific moments of humanity, and to put the many voices we have accumulated over the years behind us.

Since 1995 when their debut single “Flood” further closed the gap between pop and Christian music, Jars have been a band that refused to compromise their faith nor their crossover viability. For every directly religious “Love Song for a Savior” there was a more universally accessible “Work“. Yet even amidst the brambles of praise and pop music that is their entire catalog, they always managed to present the subject matter with a poetic elegance so both believer and non-believer alike could take in the experience.

Being Agnostic allowed for a first hand appreciation of Jars’ artisanship, a sentiment which I thought peaked at their 2006 release Good Monsters. It is with great joy that I announce Inland as the new standard. Taking its theme from The Odyssey, the new disc asks the listener to reflect on their pilgrimage through life. The beauty in its presentation is that you do not need to have faith in God for the message to resonate.

The trail opens with “After the Fight”, the first single. A discussion with self or other that could just as easily be about struggling with belief as it could a relationship. The opening line “You can blame it on my pride or the spell that I’m under” presents that universal moment where we decide being right is more important than being happy. The verses are complimented by a prideful stand offish bass, the chorus that moment of calm as Haseltine sings:

After the fight is over, will I talk so tough? Will I run for cover, after the gloves come off? Yeah, when the black eye lingers, will I stand my ground?

“Age of Immature Mistakes” leads with a haunting synthesizer creating an atmosphere of youthful reflection, recalling the days when love was an empty concept yet stronger than nature. The sweet sentimentality is trampled by an energetic heartbeat like drum as the truth of “Ooh, don’t know enough about love so we make it up. Ooh, like hearts in the hands of a child till they break it up.” The tempo change accurately details those teenage mood swings of confusion which I found perfectly qualified through the imagery of using an umbrella to protect one’s self from “crashing waves and stormy seas”.

Inland is at it most aggressive on “Loneliness and Alcohol”, a song which makes no attempt to get overly artsy with the story of someone who has become lost in the bottle. If you have ever had someone you love deal with this addiction the idea of getting “buried under all these lines, all this light, all these lies” resonates like a bell. The urgency with which the song starts is akin to that anxious moment of intervention as the unsuspecting friend/loved one walks through the door. Next is the calm attempt to explain why this is happening followed by the swift moving chorus where tough love takes over in the delivery of one of my favorite lyrics on the disc:

Tell me of the world you’re leaving, while you’re swinging like a wrecking ball, Bury all your love and secrets, and loneliness in alcohol

While shinning bright in its up tempo moments, Inland may be most successful when its gait is slowed. “Fall Asleep” paints the scene of a couple sitting beside a lake, under a starry sky and far away from all the distractions of civilization, with only Haseltine’s voice, a piano, violins and violas. There are elements of loss due to pursuit of material success and hope in rediscovering true happiness. It may be the perfect arrangement of subject and sound as it conveys the importance of the moment as a means of softening regret; “We wandered off like children, in the woods…So stay up with me don’t fall asleep. ‘Cause we only have this moment once in our lives.” Adding further to its strength is its role for youth as a poignant panorama into their future.

My personal favorite is “Love in Hard Times” whose drum beat reminds me of the clicking of train wheels on tracks wandering through small misty towns. It seems to complete what was started by “Fight”, finding its subjects sitting quietly in their cabin until the one admits they have reached a point for which it is too late “to try for something better” or “fight for something better”. Being in my mid-40’s with almost 20 years of marriage behind me, observing the successes and failures of raising two children and having lost friendships due to pride on both sides, this is the song that captures my heart.

So if you want to go, I’ll go there with you, I’ll go there, It’s when I think to reach across those battle lines, And love in the hard times, Sometimes I just want to feel your hand in mine, Still love in the hard times

“Inland” finishes the hike as if the last chapter in a book. A simple acoustic guitar leads you into the clearing as the steady drum beats holds your cadence. With peaks and valleys behind you, Jars closes with the angelic call to “Come on home to me” and “I will always be here by your side”. Directly the song is about the consistency of God always being there, awaiting the “Prodigal Son” from his/her journey. In the end, after the struggles and confusion there is this one reliable fact:

Remove the shoes you came on, Feel the ground you’re made from, Pack up all your questions, Just keep heading inland and come on home to me

But that directness is not absolute. If one did not know this was a Christian band would one necessarily view this closing as a call to faith? It could just as easily be that life long friend, a parent or a spouse who reminds you that no matter where you have gone, I will be your grounding should you circle back.

Inland does stay honest to Jars’ religious grounding and “Reckless Forgiver” which could easily find itself played at church youth events or in a contemporary church service. Yet the bulk of this collection is grounded in those questions of being-in-the-world, echoed in the anthemic “Left Undone”:

I thought everything would turn our right, now look what I’ve become, A man I wouldn’t have respect for if I’d met me when I was young. I will try to make up for lost time forsaking all I’ve done and left undone

Music is often a wicked muse who requires a certain age or attitude in order to move you. Jars of Clay have overcome this valley with Inland. Theist or atheist, young or old, this is a disc that presents shared experiences through the eyes of a band which uses their faith to carve out meaning. For the non-religious, Jars of Clay is that Christian friend you wish you had. The one who will listen without preaching. For the religious it is the friend which reminds you that questions are elemental to believing.  The sentiment of this band, and Inland itself, is summed up perfectly in this question and answer from Schiefelbein’s interview with Lowell:

Jars of Clay has always battled the “Christian band” stereotype and label. Can you talk about being an artist with a Christian message, yet separating yourself from the Christian label?

Sure. In this season, our only objective or message is to be honest. To put words and melodies to the grumblings and celebrations we get to live out. I don’t know how different that is from other “Christian artists”. The tension we have with being labeled a Christian band really lies in people’s wide (and often incorrect) perceptions and experiences with Christianity. It’s all over the map, from Pat Robertson to Bono and beyond. And the music quickly fades to the back, while things like politics and dogma become much too important. Then you either agree or disagree, “us or them”, and that’s just not the role that art should hold in our world. Art should provoke and move us, challenge and sustain us, where those other things fall so short and thin. Art should set a table and invite people to come and observe, engage, and respond.

As the story goes, Odysseus carried his oar until he met people who had never seen water and therefore did not know what an oar was. Inland succeeds in being that work of art that asks the listener what their oar is and to persevere until you find those who need to hear your story.

– Brian Fullford


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