‘Famous Last Words’: A Jars of Clay Retrospective (Sort of)
Raise a glass for ignorance, drink a toast to fear
The beginning of the end has come that’s why we all are here
Strike up the band to play a song and try hard not to cry
And fake a smile as we all say goodbye
“Goodbye, Goodnight” | If I Left the Zoo
A lot of people have that one artist or band that saves them from a lifetime diet of just maudlin Top 40 or country music. Sometimes that one band works as a gateway drug to new genres and eventually gets dropped and forgotten for greener pastures. But others, still, hold tightly to that band with the inevitable excitement of each new release and the dire (and real) fear that maybe they really are not as good as we once thought they were. Jars of Clay was the band that awakened me to a world of music and taught me to appreciate the creative motion of a band. As I followed them into foreign musical terrains I never thought I would inhabit–and ended up liking–I often wondered if my fellow fans had the same experience.
I have never been shy in sharing my rather unpopular opinion that their debut would be towards the bottom of my ranking of albums. I have maybe listened to it only a handful of times. It never really grabbed me like it did for most. By the time I heard it, Jars’ self-titled debut had two things going against it: I had heard “Flood” way too many times on the radio and I was never able to find much enjoyment in “Love Song for a Savior.” It felt a little too sugary sweet for my liking, too much like Sonic Flood or Mercy Me. But I never found my low estimation of their first album to be a bad thing. First albums are there to be built upon, not to overshadow anything that comes after it. Their debut album was a solid foundation on which a healthy 20 year career was built upon. But it’s still just the concrete; it’s not the walls, arches, interior designs or exterior/landscape flourishes. But it is important. Vital, even.
Most people find one album that persuasively makes the case for a band as a staple in one’s music collection. For me, that album for Jars of Clay was If I Left the Zoo (1999). My first taste of the band was this weird little album with weird little songs that felt very flamboyant and very much like the title describes: a zoo or carnival. I maintain that “Goodbye, Goodnight” is still, to this day, their most satisfying and exciting opening track. A song that could be interpreted as being sung from the perspective of an orchestra going down on the Titanic (and often has been). I listened to that album to the point of gluttony and then sought out the back catalogue. I picked up a physical copy of their self-titled debut (1995) and Much Afraid (1997). The problem with coming into a band’s musical journey late–and on a record with such a drastic departure in style–is that everything that comes before can appear mundane in comparison.
Have I absolutely loved–without caveat–every album Jars of Clay has released? No. But I can say I have profoundly lived each album. We latch on to certain bands to the point where they become a concrete marker in our lives. With each album release we catalog details about our lives at the time–and often how the music was present in those moments. Jars of Clay has always been that band for me.
For instance, I remember listening to Who We Are Instead in my old gray truck, on a chilly and cloudy November evening, entranced by the bluesy, gospel-tinged bluegrass sound that was surprising and atypical for Jars of Clay. The completely stripped down sound was engrossing. I ended up walking to class in the spritzing rain thinking on the somber sixth track, “Faith Enough,” that riffed off a quote by Ernest Hemingway from A Farewell to Arms:
The world breaks every one and, afterward, many are strong at the broken places.
That was not the only album to draw me in. Each album brought a new sound and new set of themes with which to wrestle. I remember weeping when I first heard “Oh My God” from Good Monsters as Dan Haseltine opined the plight of the world and those less fortunate. Or “Love in the Hard Times” on Inland finding profound resonance with me in the wake of my dad’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. It prompted me to love and show grace even in the midst of the difficult times of life.
When Jars of Clay announced they were doing a fan-funded 20th anniversary album, I started thinking about the trajectory of their musical journey. Each album presented challenges, rough edges and, sometimes, elements that I just didn’t like. Though none of them came away being completely discarded and forgotten.
I’ve listened to the anniversary album a few times in past weeks. I admit I expected wholly new versions of all the songs–picked by fans–with new interpretations and crazy flourishes. What we get, however, is actually a retrospective of their career done with the same relaxed and mature sound that eased my nerves on their last album, Inland. There are a couple of surprises around the halfway point. Two new–and brilliant–songs (“Ghost in the Moon” & “If You Love Her”) were included to round off some of the most notable and most emotionally powerful tunes of Jars’ twenty years.
Two moments on the anniversary album stick out in my mind. First, the new version of “God Will Lift Up Your Head” from Redemption Songs finds almost an inversion of the original. Instead of slower verses and a faster beat on the chorus, Jars quickens the beat during the verses and slows it down significantly–to an almost jazz sway–for the chorus. Such a simple alteration gives the song a completely new life and subtly alters the potential meanings behind the song.
The second moment was the new version of “Love Song for a Savior.” Leave it to Jars of Clay to actually find a version of that song that would finally redeem it for me. This version works because it sounds weathered, older, like the band has gone all the way down and come out of the trials of life gripping faith harder than ever. For all must die before they can live and sometimes those descents, or deaths, in life can strengthen us and our faith. I think Jars of Clay has learned such wisdom and truth over the last twenty years. Their anniversary album shows four guys who are more certain than ever where their hope lies in the midst of the wreckage life presents to us all.
Here’s to 20 more years. Keep them coming…for the sake of all of your fans.
i can’t believe how closely this resembles my experience with JOC. Every single album is a passing of time for me, something significant in my life. Thanks so much for this.
I am extremely happy that someone else shared the same general experience of their music. That probably means more to me than anything else! Thanks for reading and I am glad I could connect with you on that level.
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