Jars of Clay – Inland

It is easy to review albums that are horrible. It brings in those familiar feelings of watching a bad movie or an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. It is easy to review things that are immensely popular. Those things that were created for profit, pouring out of the music business machine. Its easy to critique these kinds of albums. It gets harder when you have to write an honest review about something that just did not hit the mark. Those albums that were made by artists with good intentions, who took the easy route, or over complicated things, or tried to sell out. This is where reviewing gets harder. But, by far, the hardest reviews to write are the ones of albums that really mean something to you. The albums that break you down to tears. Lyrics that pierce your soul. These kinds of albums are the ones that will stick with you, and trying to put together words to adequately express your feelings, is a very difficult task. I will be very upfront with this review, the new album “Inland” by Jars of Clay is one of those albums. It is an album that will most likely be overlooked by many, but deserves and demands your attention.

Jars - Inland

 

Jars of Clay is a very special band to me. They are a band that emerged and operated in the CCM category for quite some time, but always managed to rise above it in spectacular ways.  They are one of the very few bands that gained mainstream success in the christian music world that I still go back to and enjoy. From their first self titled release to Inland, they never really repeated themselves, and yet they managed to always keep their identity. Each album was a unique experience. Every album had a story to tell. I will say, their last album “Shelter” was probably my least favorite in their collection. Perhaps it was the collaborations, but this album just did not have the lyrical or compositional weight that other Jars albums had. Thankfully, with “Inland” the expert writing, performing, and composing is back in high form. And, like most Jars of Clay albums, it is very difficult to compare to earlier work. Each album is unique in its own way, and “Inland” is definitely unique.

This album is simple. It is subtle. And it is nearly perfect. Every part, every song, every note is exactly where it needs to be, with nothing that seems out-of-place. Every part is essential to the composition of the song. The background swells and unique guitar work of Adrian Belew create a haunting backdrop for these songs to fall into place. The songs themselves are sparse, simple, and effective. The production flourishes are never overdone, and many times are so hidden in the background, it takes an intent ear to hear them. But, this is not an error, for as I said earlier, this album demands your attention. Much of what makes this album so incredible is hidden in the little moments, the quiet backgrounds. You just will not get all that you can out of this album by throwing it on in the car, or the background. This kind of demand from an album is immensely important in a culture that tries to reduce musical art to background noise. I highly encourage anyone to take 50 minutes, turn off all distractions, and just listen to this album. Turn it up loud and pay attention. Hear the little things that make these songs so extraordinary. There are simple synths, strings, and I think saxophones hidden all throughout this album that really show its expertise.

I want to quickly comment on how incredible the song Human Race is. The lyrics are heavy, and they really make you think. I love the use of vocoder and trumpet in this song. The bluesy guitar break is unexpected and amazing. But, the thing that makes this song demand a short comment is the end. At the very end of this song, the trumpet and vocoder shift pitch. Its hard to catch if you are not paying attention, but when you hear it, you can’t unhear it. It’s jarring. Its unappealing. And it needed to be there. It ties the whole song together, bringing the message and the meaning of the song into the music. We are limping along in the human race. We are imperfect, and so they made the song that way. Like the Native Americans who leave blemish on their weaving, because its where the spirit enters. They left that blemish, right at the end and it gave the song spirit.

Jars of Clay always excel in the quiet moments.  Songs like Boys (Lesson One), Frail, and of course Worlds Apart are some of their highest moments. This band shines brightest in the quiet moments. This album is no different. Songs like Love in the Hard Times and Pennsylvania stand out in their ability to create so much out of so little. They are emotionally charged and deeply insightful. But, the most powerful quiet song is by far Fall Asleep. This song is top notch. I am not sure if it was intentional, but at least for me, this song is at least partially inspired/similar to “Asleep” by The Smiths. Not just in similar title, the sparse piano, haunting lyrics, and perfect minimal atmosphere creates the same powerful emotions that The Smiths masterfully created 20+ years ago. The strings are perfect, and when the acoustic guitar finally comes in at the final verse, it creates just enough build in this very quiet song. This song is incredible in every aspect, from the forest noises to the instrumentation and arrangement and it shows Jars doing what they have always done best.

With all that said, I can safely say that the final song “Inland” is my favorite song released this year, and contends with some of my favorite songs of all time. This song is, like the album, expertly crafted. The way the song slowly builds, never getting to out of hand is perfect. The choice of sounds is spot on. I love all the subtle things that are going on in this song. The guitar and drums are quite simple, but when you pay attention you start to hear all intricate beauty that is in this song. The up and down patterns between the verses and choruses allow to catch some of the details, but again, this song takes a keen ear and a lot of attention to hear all that is happening in it. The background vocals, the bells, the mellotrons, and I think there is even a deep saxophone somewhere in there. The lyrics are some of the most profound lyrics I have heard in a long time, and they do a great job of tying all the lyrical themes of the album together. This album starts off by dealing with a lot of questions, a lot of doubts, a lot of issues in our world. But, with Left Undone,  the statement is made: I will try to make up for lost time forsaking all I’ve done and left undone . With this we learn to find grace for ourselves. Forsaking that which we have done and left undone, no longer holding judgement on our decisions, both good and bad. It is in this place that we can set aside all of the issues from the world we know, burn our ships and start marching inland. We can start to follow our heart and push forward, to the place where “no man is an island”. Then, at the very end of the song, hidden in the background, is:

 
I will always be here by your side
I will always stand next to you
Where your darkness hits the light
In the place where you stand against the tide
I will always stand next to you
I will always stand next to you
I wall always be here by your side
Come on home to me

 
All in all, this album is incredible. It takes some time to really hear all that makes it special,  because it is a subtle masterpiece. I highly suggest you pick up a copy of this album, take the time, and just let this album affect you. Let it make you emotional. Let it bring up your questions and your doubts. Let it open the wounds of heartbreak, and times lost in loneliness and alcohol. Then let it help you to forsake all that you have done and left undone. When it is all said and done, start moving inland.

DOES IT SUCK: NO. IT IS ONE OF THE STRONGEST RELEASES THIS YEAR AND GUNGOR IS GOING TO HAVE TO SERIOUSLY STEP UP THEIR GAME TO BEAT OUT THIS ALBUM AS MY FAVORITE OF THE YEAR.

 

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The Cynics Playground (The Easy Way)

We live in a world where it is easy to be cynical. We live in a culture where bitterness, skepticism, and misanthropy are very easy ways to deal with the world. The philosophies that guide the modern world, combined with the constant pursuit of greed create an atmosphere that can bring the most earnest and hopeful individual to their knees. Some days, it’s hard for me not to be cynical. Sometimes, I lose trust in everything. This struggle, this lack of trust does not come out of some profound realization. It is not fueled by some kind of man-behind-the-curtain reveal that shatters my perceptions. Rather, this kind of bitterness is easy to tap into, and the true revelations, those moments of profound clarity come when I learn to rise above this age so well designed for hopelessness, and see that cynicism being easy does not make it right. Let me explain:

cynics1

1. Snake-Oil and Big Pharma (the eternal dichotomy complex)
Our culture is obsessed with dividing down to two options. We polarize everything, from soda (coke vs. pepsi) to politics. Nothing, in my opinion, is harmed more than the health industry. In one corner you have modern medicine, big pharma, and “science”. In the other Naturopathy, alternative medicine, and “Nature”. Both sides are convinced the other is wrong. Both sides are willing to bend numbers, forge test results, and all sorts of other unpleasantness to make their side look good (and more importantly, the other side look bad). And both sides have a lot of good points to make, because both sides are fueled, not by a desire to help humanity be healthy and well, but by a desire to gain. They are both, in one way or another, polluted by greed. When it comes to modern medicine, its easy to see the dangers that are created by greed. Medicine goes out without being properly tested. We find out years later that things like fillings and formula are not actually the best things for us. The industry is hugely profitable, so they shut down alternative medicines that have been proven to work, because there is not profit to be gained. Doctors across the board are becoming less personal, more focused on money. They end up demonizing well to do medical practitioners like midwifes, not on any factual level, but rather because having a home birth means that the hospital is losing thousands of dollars of revenue. You can find case after case on natural websites and publications of “modern medicine” forsaking the good will of humanity for profit. This does not, however mean that they are completely evil. Many good things have come out of modern medicine. I would not be breathing right now if it were not for those advancements. Both of my parents would be dead if it was not for the cancer research that has made a once hopeless diagnosis, far less heavy. The issue, of course, comes in trying to wade between what is really good for us, and what is not. Do we really need a chicken pox vaccine? Is Chemo really the best way to battle cancer? There are thousands of questions that demand answers, and no one can give an objective opinion because we are too busy fighting to try to make the world healthier and better. The backlash to this all is natural, or alternative medicine. Now, there are some amazing natural remedies out there. Things like real, fermented fish oil and black elderberry syrup have been shown to be extremely helpful to the human body. Unfortunately, there is a whole world of nonsense in the “alternative” world to. Things like homeopathy, ingesting silver, and crystals make it once again hard to navigate the landscape of human betterment and health, due to greed. There is so much snake oil in the natural world, its understandable why the “modern” world seems to just discount anything natural. Unfortunately, both of these sides are fighting so fervently, its near impossible for someone who is just looking to feel better to find any answers they can trust. All tests seem to be muddled past the point of understanding, and every article is so biased, it’s so difficult to find facts in this. And we are talking about our well-being here. The industry of wellness is so caught up in greed and being right, its falling apart. That makes it really easy to be cynical.

2. The Modern World (Pride and Reduction)

We are so convinced that we know what is going on. The modern worldview will tell you that anything old is outdated and archaic, and only new, scientific discoveries are of value. Principles of reductionism and materialism run rampant in our subconscious philosophies. If it can’t be proven by our systems, than it must be false. Unfortunately, our systems are not fail proof and this means that once every few years, everything that we thought was real and true and right seems to be re-written. The problem with this kind of ideology is that all of the weight lands on our understanding. We are tasked with figuring out how everything works and you are a rambling fool if you don’t get it right. Now, before I go any further let me say, I have no issues with scientific discovery. I love when we find out crazy new things about the universe we live in. What bothers me is when this new, arrogant, philosophy overtakes the educated society, and you are left feeling like a bumbling idiot for having hope of something beyond us. This ideology springs up everywhere. Churches and theologians convinced that it is of the utmost importance to disprove evolution. Atheists convinced that the only logical viewpoint is to destroy all theologies. And once again we are caught in the midst of an ever-growing chasm between a self-created dichotomy. When all is said and done, you are left feeling like you have to get it right. You have to understand how everything works. If you believe something, there best be proof and it better not have any logical holes in it. We start to treat the great philosophies like mathematical equations, making sure we are completely rid of all fallacy. This way of thinking is deeply damaging, and it leads to more skepticism, pain, and cynicism.

3. Beautiful Tragedy (Fear and Lunacy Obsession)

Turn on the news. Count how many happy things they talk about. Count how many uplifting and glorious stories are told. Now count how many disasters, tragedies, and crimes are talked about. We live in fear culture. We live in a world obsessed with tragedy. Now, let me again say, I don’t believe the answer is to ignore the problems in our world. I do, however think that constantly berating your  heart with negativity is damaging. It leads you to believe that every story will end up in tears. Every hospital visits gonna end up with someone dead. You start to miss that many times, people rally. You miss that after the storm, the whole town gathered and rebuilt. You miss the beauty in the world. It does not help that there are terrible people in our world. I try so hard to believe that we are the broken and beautiful Imago Dei, and that we were looked upon and called “very good”. But then I go and watch a movie like Blackfish. I hear about the next terrible tragedy caused by human greed. I watch as people destroy each other, in some sort of misanthropic self fulfilled prophecy. And once again, life becomes more difficult to deal with. On top of all this, we live in a comfortable society. We have very little do fret over. We have made every basic need so easy to satisfy, we are left with all this time on our hands and on our minds. With all of this time to ponder and question and think, we are thrust headfirst into a culture that is obsessed with war and pain and suffering. When we make it to the other side, it is a small wonder that we would have any hope left.

But, there is hope. There is a light that is shining so very bright. Our culture leaves us believing that the shadows are all there are. We are left, crying and hopeless, chained up and forced to look at the world through such narrow vision. But, we can break out of our chains. We can learn that modernism is not the only way to look at the world. We can realize that for most of human history, we had the humility to admit there were things beyond our understanding. We can take the time to find our own darkness, our own selfishness, and realize that these people who are seemingly evil are no different from us. Like Sufjan Stevens says we can look underneath our floorboards at the secrets we have hid, not to find some kind of judgement or condemnation, but to find connection with each other. It is true, the world I was born into is one that was made to raise me a cynic. But I choose the other path. I choose the path less followed. I choose to live a life of hope. I choose to live a life of love. This is the true gospel. This is what it means to not be conformed by the patterns of this world. To hold to that narrow road of hope. And it is very, very good news.

The Digital Age – Evening:Morning

I used to love David Crowder* Band. As time passed and I went back to listen to DCB, I realized that I didn’t really love their music, I loved a few really interesting moments in their music.  Those moments when they let go of the typical chords and overused lyrics, and did something musically interesting. This was most evident on their more conceptual albums. When I looked at those songs that really stood out, I noticed they were always written by the guitarist of the band. So, when the band minus Crowder started recording as “The Digital Age” I was hopeful. I hoped that they would expound on these moments of greatness from their run with David Crowder, and do something epic, unique, and deep. When they announced the pre-orders, I immediately went for it and then forgot about it until today, when I received an email reminding me that I had in fact pre-ordered the album, and that my pre-order entitled me to stream the entire album early. I just finished listening through (mind you on lower quality streams, not HQ audio files) and here is what i thought of the asterisks first attempt on their own.

Evening-Morning-Cover

1. The structure is predictable.

Every time I would hear a IV chord followed by a I, I would hope that they would do something unique. Then the V would come, and I would still hope that they would change things up at the end. And every damn time that Minor iv would show its head, mocking me, bringing me back to 2005 when Hillsong United was “revolutionizing” worship by drenching it in delay and power bridges. My first big issue with this album very rarely does it do anything interesting. The chord progressions are all super basic and typical. The same can be said for the structures of the songs. I could excuse the Hillsong staple verse chorus verse chorus SUPER BRIDGE THAT EVERYONE KNOWS!!!! pattern once. But then it happened again. And again. The composition seems so calculated. Like, they want to write songs that youth groups will use in their worship sets for years to come. Except they are 8 years late to the party. Not a single song on this album would be out-of-place on “United We Stand”. Just add a little Australian accent and I would believe this to be a Hillsong album. Now, granted this is not bad, it’s just disappointing. For whatever reason, I always believed that there was something different in these musicians, just waiting to be let loose. I really hoped that Evening:Morning would be that place. Also, they twice do the “VIva La Vida put a two-minute interlude at the end of a song without separating them” nonsense. Both times, this second part to the song has no connection to the original song, and ends up feeling arbitrary. They are cool, but i wish they would have been developed into their own things, instead of being tacked on to the end of another song.

2. The musicality is (at times) interesting.

I will give them this, their arrangements get interesting. This is also the area that the streams most hinder this band, because I know there is a lot going on in these songs, but I can’t hear it all, because it gets lost in the compression. Hopefully, the full quality album will sound much clearer. That being said, there are some really cool sounds used on this album.  I actually really like the “Falling Up” esque vocal processing that shows up around “Overcome”.  I wish the programming was more apparent throughout the whole album, because the songs with more of that electronic sound are by far the strongest songs on the album.  This album actually has a lot going for it musically. Songs like Captured, All the Poor and Powerless, and Overcome have some really cool orchestral sounds that really take the music to the next level, but they are between songs like Symphony of Grace and Your Name, which feel overdone and forgettable.  The last three songs are also really weak, musically. They just feel like they are there to make the album 12 songs, and I had a hard time finding any really identifying characteristics.

3. The Lyrics are boring.

Guys. We don’t need to keep rehashing 20 year old praise lyrics. People like Michael Gungor have shown us that you don’t have to use the same 15 phrases in every worship song. I feel like if worship music is ever going to progress, we need to get out of this overly simplistic, preachy, lyricism. I like the focus on grace and love, but it seems shallow. I feel like these are really deep and intensely important ideas, but they end up becoming buzz words and chants that lose almost all meaning. Through the Night is the one exception to this (this is my favorite song, BTW). Now, I will I have not taken a deep look at the lyrics (so there could be some deeper themes i am missing), but the overuse of boring, fluffy language and tired analogies are symptoms of a disease that I feel is hurting the idea of worship music. a musical expression of worship does not need to be easy, affirming, and happy. It can be heavy. It can be deep. It can be doubtful and angry. For the most part, the lyrics on this album are just more Jesus is my Boyfriend pop love songs, and I am really tired of this kind of lyricism. David used rich poetry and powerful emotion in the psalms, why can’t we?


All in all, this album is a step in the right direction, but its a small one. It has some high points (Through the Night, Believe) but it also has quite a few low points (Symphony of Grace, Break Every Chain). Some of the best songs are the ones they have been doing since their first youtube videos.  The arrangements are more interesting than the most mainstream worship dudes, but it’s still the same progressions and lyrics, just with a cool new wardrobe. It doesn’t suck, but it is far from great. I was really hoping for more.

DOES IT SUCK? No. Its safe. Its predictable. Its okay.