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 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.