Saturday, May 09, 2009

Music to My Ears: Part 2

So far 2009 has been a pretty good year for music. First U2 released No Line On The Horizon and then, several months after it was released, I had the chance to hear Extreme’s Saudades de Rock. I also picked up some Hillsong and Passion worship CDs which have some very good music on them. And just a couple of weeks ago, Jars of Clay released their newest offering, The Long Fall Back to Earth. That’s the album I want to talk about here. But before I launch into what I think of Jars of Clay newest album, I want to say a couple of things by way of introduction.

The first is this: I’m getting tired of how nearly every review of a new Jars of clay album includes the obligatory mention of how this album either does or doesn’t sound like their hugely successful (by CCM standards) and critically acclaimed self-titled debut album released roughly 14 years ago. I find these comparisons tiresome, because they contain the somewhat implicit suggestion that any album that doesn’t come across as FIRST ALBUM PART II is automatically inferior. And the truth is most of the Jars' subsequent albums have been much superior to their first.

Moreover, I love the fact that no two of their albums, while all recognizably Jars-sounding, sound alike. Their styles have ranged from alternative acoustic rock to brit-rock to Beatlesque pop to alt-country/folk/gospel to re-imagined hymnody. Their last album, the near-brilliant Good Monsters, combined a number of these styles into one album, making it one of their most ambitious. Now with The Long Fall Back to Earth they’ve decided to channel the best of 80s lush keyboard and guitar-tinged pop-rock, creating an album with a million melodic hooks.

I don’t know yet whether this album will rank among my favourite of Jars’ work (Who We Are Instead, Redemption Songs, and Good Monsters), but it is a wonderfully realized package of catchy tunes and mature lyrics that explore the complicated tangle of experiences and emotions that are part and parcel of human relationships. More than anything, the album tackles such themes as forgiveness, grace, fidelity, and perseverance in the context of relationships.

Introducing this theme is the song “Weapons,” which both announces that people in relationship can sometimes behave like combatants and tells us to “Lay your weapons down/there are no enemies in front of you.” The lyrics manage to lay bare how we sometimes treat one another while pointing to the hope that even in the worst of our human brokenness the possibility of grace remains: “We didn’t notice that grace had run so thin/ Till we’re falling apart and the cracks in our hearts let the truth sink in.”

Two songs in particular deal specifically with forgiveness. The first, “Safe to Land,” pictures the narrator as a pilot saying “I need your runway lights to burn for me . . . Is it safe, is it safe to land?” The other, “Forgive Me,” is an irresistibly melodic rocker where the singer confesses his amazement that forgiveness is even available, and wonders if he’s waited too long to seek it: “And now I’m so afraid, if I find the words to say/ Have I lost you anyway?”

“Scenic Route” seems to be about the perseverance of one partner in the relationship when the other seems ready to give it up, while “Closer” expresses our need for intimacy and the frustration we know when it seems to elude us. Even the album title, The Long Fall Back to Earth, which comes from the song “Safe to Land,” seems to refer to the difficult emotional and personal distance we need to travel for reconciliation to happen at all.

One thing to note is that none of the songs are in any way obvious “Christian” songs, though the themes that the band explore are all at the core of the good news of God—that he seeks to reconcile us to himself, and that he, in the person of the Son, has indeed made “a long fall . . . to earth” to make his offer of forgiveness and relationship concrete.

Still, the album would have been helped if it had given some indication of where we all can find full reconciliation: that is, in Christ. Especially since even the fullest expression of reconciliation between human beings is only possible through the good news, it seems a little odd that this wasn’t made more explicit in the lyrics of the album. Though this is so, the album is redeemed by many lyrics which effectively express the themes in question from a human perspective.

So though it’s possible that the album as a whole might have been stronger by stripping it of a couple of songs (“Headphones” and “Boys (Lesson One)”), it’s strong melodies, poetic and mature lyrics, and ear-candy instrumentation makes The Long Fall Back to Earth another excellent addition to the Jars’ already impressive discography.


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