Most of the respectable Christian bands from my childhood have either officially called it quits (Audio Adrenaline), effectively called it quits (dc Talk), or completely changed their lineup and ceased to be remotely interesting (Newsboys). But Jars of Clay is still going strong. 2006’s Good Monsters was surprisingly solid and fresh, and after that they established their own label out of their alleged desire “to control their music output.” Well, it seems to have been worth it.
The Long Fall Back To Earth shows Jars of Clay continuing to distance themselves from the more boring aspects of the Christian radio industry in favor of a more layered mainstream sound. The intro track is inevitably reminiscent of Coldplay’s Viva La Vida kick-off, but I’m a sucker for that well-polished mellow rock groove buildup thing. “Weapons” is a beautiful opener, exhibiting an anthemic clean energy in the vein of Snow Patrol with its multi-faceted call to peace: Lay your weapons down / There are no enemies in front of you!
The album continues to build around the framework of layered, polished production and catchy melodies, but it explores ample territory throughout. “Heaven” and “Don’t Stop” channel the 80’s with synthesizers, and “Closer” feels more like modern indie/electronica, complete with horns and bells. “Hero” has a rhythm-driven Muse-like intensity, and is one of many songs sprinkled with a brightly ringing keyboard melody (think “Starlight”).
But it’s not just the music that repaints a well-worn landscape with an interesting coat. Dan Haseltine’s songwriting is as strong as ever, and the lyrics weave their way through life and love with smart perspectives. “Headphones” is a slower, softer song about the desire to shut out a tiring world.”Scenic Route” argues that love is more about the journey than the destination. “Boys (Lesson One)” is a father’s advice to a son: Not to undermine the consequence / But you are not what you do / If you weather love and lose your innocence / Just remember lesson one – don’t hide.
With fifty-nine minutes of thirteen tracks plus an intro, they could have skipped a couple weaker songs and still had a long album by today’s standards; towards the end you start to feel like you’ve heard this verse-prechorus-chorus buildup before. But “Heart” is a strong – albeit slightly offbeat – closer, and a wonderful love song.
This is an album that grows on you with each listen, as you sink past the catchy surface and begin to appreciate the plethora of curves and layers (the variety of background vocals alone is quite delightful). Nestled somewhere comfortably between rock and pop – between commercial and indie – this album is exactly what this kind of music is supposed to be like: smart, melodic, catchy, and just downright pleasant, and I’m unashamed to name it my favorite release from the first months of 2009.