As far as Christian bands are concerned, Jars of clay is a bit of an oddity. Though there are many solid, quality groups that populate the genre, Jars of Clay seems to stand a touch above the rest. Their latest endeavor, ” Good Monsters,” is a testimony to their musical prowess. It is driven, focused, alive.
But this is no surprise, seeing as how it birthed by a band that relies heavily upon both divine inspiration and a passion that stems from devoted, submitted hearts. Throughout their lengthy and influential musical career, Jars of Clay has consistently produced powerful albums. Beginning with their self-titled 1995 debut, the band has shown a fondness for imaginative and heart-felt compositions.
Though the album itself was rough, possessing a rocky and raw quality, it still managed to convey the true potential of masters at work. Taken from the album and placed even on main-stream radio stations, the single “Flood” made a huge splash in a tiny pond, simultaneously establishing the band as a serious contender and redefining the potential for Christians to better reach the secular world.
But it is not their success on the open market that defines them, a fact that has been emphasized by the contents of the albums they have produced over a twelve-year history. Though their 1997 follow up, “Much-Afraid,” did not convey the same outright spiritual emphasis as its predecessor (a fact that caused many to shy from the band), one need only listen closely to realize that the vast majority of the tracks are expressions of faith or pleading with the lost and backslider to find their way back.
They speak the truth of the wayward soul, the fears of those saved by grace but wary of a distant or callous God. They sing and play through the bliss and the sorrow of the human state, offering vulnerable, honest souls to a world that views Christians as bigoted or holier-than-thou. In the long walk home, we all feel doubt, we all fall short or disobey. Jars of Clay just has a knack for setting the symphony of truth and emotion to music.
And so, again, it is no surprise to find that Jars of Clay has created another striking, beautiful album. “Good Monsters,” whether you agree with the spiritual tone or not, is a well crafted, masterfully produced contribution. Layered and complicated, simple and understated, the band continues to explore its focus. They take initiative, experiment with harmonies or introductions.
Dan Haseltine, who carries the weight of lead vocals, has never sounded better. His voice, borne by fluid, angry guitars or subtle banjo plucking, is distinct, finding the perfect tone for each of the twelve occasions that adorn the CD. But all of his expression would be in vain if not for his accompaniment. The band is on fire, grabbing hold of what they have and exhausting it of potential.
Be it the distant rumble of distortion or the upfront and personal thudding of the drums, this band betrays both its hours spent mastering its craft and the comfort they share as a family. I have only one grievance with the album, and that would be “Smoke and Mirrors.” This track, which possesses the number ten spot on the album, seems unnecessary, out of place. It is still a well thought out tune, and the vocals contributed by Leigh Nash (of Sixpence None the Richer) compliment those offered by Haseltine. But nonetheless, the tune seems misplaced, competing for the attention of the album as a whole and falling short.
I think what sets this band apart from its Christian counterparts is its continued involvement in the production process. Though they have not always done so, in recent years Jars of Clay has had its hand heavily placed upon each album. I believe that this is what keeps them fresh, keeps them evolving as a band. In the wide world of music, it seems that external, studio supplied producers spell death for many groups.
This is remarkably true in the Christian industry, and is responsible for birthing groups that play to sell, that play to attract the attention of the rest of the world. While it is important the message of the Gospel reach the secular world, it should not be done at the expense of God’s intentions. What we see now are stifled, subdued bands, shaped by what “professionals” deem marketable.
Not here. With Jars of Clay, we find a group willing to take risks, to expand upon the vision God has given them of their ministry. Though they may never be embraced by the world as they were at the release of “Flood,” at the very least they will maintain their musical integrity. The Gospel and the longings of the human soul, the embrace of Jesus and the mistaken flight from that embrace, the hope and wonder found in a world of illness and despair, the gentle pleading with the lost and the exposure of true, ugly and beautiful humanity; Jars of Clay covers it all.