Sounds like …sophisticated, hook-laden modern pop/rock along the lines of Toad the Wet Sprocket and Vertical Horizon.At a Glance …terrific production, strong musicianship, thoughtful songwriting, and extremely memorable melodies make for the best Jars of Clay album since their debut.
When it comes time for a new album from Jars of Clay, I've learned to lay aside all expectations. Yes, it's my job as a music critic to review all albums with impartiality, but this foursome from Illinois has managed to challenge listeners and fans with every CD they release. Most everyone has memorized the band's 1995 self-titled debut (from "Liquid" to "4:7") and Jars of Clay earned it's multi-platinum success from the disc's seemingly endless well of catchy songs, most notably the smash crossover hit, "Flood." Jars of Clay then surprised us all by following their successful debut with 1997's Much Afraid, a more low-key album that was met with what I sensed as "reluctant enthusiasm." Sure, it spawned five #1 Christian radio hits (including the crossover hit "Five Candles") and earned them a Grammy, but it wasn't an upbeat album like the first. Where was the album's "Flood" and other rockers? In response to this, Jars released If I Left the Zoo in 1999, which was a little more rocking and creative, though perhaps a bit overproduced — comparisons have been made to The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album. The CD earned the band another Grammy and three #1 hits (including the crossover hit "Unforgetful You"). Really, these guys have yet to release a bad album. But it's worth noting that every album has sold half as much as its predecessor and that Jars of Clay has been trying to recapture the sound and success of the first album ever since its release — portrait of a band searching for its voice.
I'm happy to say that Jars of Clay seems to have found that voice with their latest release, The Eleventh Hour, though I still don't think the band has recaptured the sound of their first album. By comparison, I think The Eleventh Hour sounds the most like If I Left the Zoo, only the production is a little more focused and restrained and the songs are more introspective and meaningful (like the debut and Much Afraid). In a sense, The Eleventh Hour builds upon all the elements that have made Jars of Clay so popular over the last seven years, though they still don't have a hook or driving-rock song as strong as their breakthrough hits "Flood," "Liquid," or even "Like a Child." Nevertheless, there are plenty of Christian radio hits to be found on this album, and a couple that could easily crossover to mainstream radio for a hit at the level of "Five Candles" or "Unforgetful You." Admittedly, I can't seem to get songs such as "Disappear," "Fly," and "I Need You" out of my head.
Thematically, the songs on The Eleventh Hour revolve around the idea of human longing. "Disappear," with its infectious rhythm piano and guitar chorus, reveals the fear we all feel about being found out, even when there is One who loves us despite our sinful nature. Flowing naturally from that is "Something Beautiful," a prayer to make something out of the ugliness in us. The band's #1 single "I Need You" expresses a similar longing for God in our lives, followed by the ethereal yearning of "Silence," which struggles with doubt to find God in the midst of tragedy and heartbreak (clearly another one of those songs that has become more meaningful since the terrorist attacks). "The Edge of Water" is one of my favorites and is the antithesis of "Silence," confidently begging for Christ to return to this world as he promised.
I also enjoyed the classic rock of "Revolution," one of the band's most aggressive tracks that serves as a call to action against the apathy of our generation. However, it's no "Flood" and the lyrics almost try too hard to say, "C'mon everybody, let's rock and roll!" There's also "Fly," a sad song inspired by the story of a couple who shortly after getting married discovered that the wife was dying of cancer. The song actually is about the hope we have of eternal life through Christ, although the extremely catchy chorus still seems too happy for the song's subject. What I like most about Jars of Clay's songwriting is wonderfully summed up by guitarist Matt Odmark, "When you listen to this record, I hope you don't hear the noisy vocabulary of religion. I hope you hear music that is because of faith rather than about it." Any artist can write about what we believe as Christians, but few can effectively express the emotions we all experience (Christian and non-believers) and use them to point to the need for a Savior. This is why Jars of Clay appeals to believers as well as those still seeking the truth.
The biggest revelation about the band on The Eleventh Hour is the breadth of talent they exhibit. Jars of Clay did everything on this album: the writing, production, designing, cover photography, and even filming the recording of the project. The Jar-boys pretty much limited their outsourcing (love that phrasing from the press materials) to guest musicians and renowned mixer Jack Joseph Puig (No Doubt, Green Day, Barbara Streisand). The album sounds great through and through, smartly produced and cleanly mixed. Matt Odmark and Steve Mason are in typical fine form on guitars, but Charlie Lowell's keyboard talents are more clearly incorporated this time and Dan Haseltine's vocals are stronger than ever, ranging from fragile passion on "Silence" to gritty rock on "Revolution." It's the production that stands out the most on The Eleventh Hour, with the band using surgical precision to oversee all the creative elements of their newest work. Dan is no stranger to the producer's chair, but he and the rest of the band have never sounded as confident in that role as they do here. I'd encourage them to become more involved with the production of other artists if it didn't mean taking time from their own artistic endeavors. Perhaps that's an idea for 10–20 years from now.
I think it's important to keep a healthy perspective about Jars of Clay. There are some who would suggest that Jars of Clay is the most creative and innovative artistic force ever to hit Christian music. Simply put, they're not. I've heard lots of mainstream artists with a similar sound making music like this since the '80s, and there are certainly other talented artists in Christian music who have been more innovative over the years. That said, I think Jars of Clay has something very rare and special going on for them. Unlike your average artist (mainstream or Christian), these guys have an almost perfect balance of creative artistry and pop sensibility. They have a good beat and you can dance to it (or you can drive to it with the windows down), but you might also find some stimulation for your brain in the process. Not many artists can equally attract the head, heart, and ear, and I think it's helped earn Jars of Clay the diverse audience they have today by straddling the fine line between catchy pop and progressive art. The terrific production, strong musicianship, thoughtful songwriting, and extremely memorable melodies make The Eleventh Hour the band's best album since their debut