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Intersection of Life and Faith

Jars of Clay

  • Christianity Today Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2009 4 Mar
Jars of Clay

In order to find balance, neither of two sides can exist without the other.

It's that dichotomy of living in the physical and human world that Jars of Clay explores in their new project

Good Monsters, giving both longtime listeners and new fans a glimpse at the veteran band's creative dichotomy as well.

It's not about eradicating one side to glorify the other. It's about figuring out how to reconcile one with the other. It's about finding the good within the monster.

Speaking of finding balance between two, it's within the first two seconds of the opening track that you'll realize Good Monsters is unlike any Jars of Clay album you've heard before.

It's certainly a departure from the band's most recent recorded work, 2005's acoustically driven hymns collection Redemption Songs. When guitarists Stephen Mason and Matt Odmark make their blisteringly electric entrance on the track Work, when Charlie Lowell's piano slices through, when the rhythm section of bassist Aaron Sands and drummer Jeremy Lutito make their presences felt, and when vocalist Dan Haseltine reveals, "I have no fear of drowning/it's the breathing that's taking all this work," you sense you're in for a little different experience than you've had from these guys in the past.

It's transparency by design, an expressed desire to speak truth, as they see it, at the very moment they experience it. "There's more urgency in these songs. There's more honesty," Haseltine says. "In a way, we're weighing in on the bigger conversations we've kept ourselves out of for a long time. The conversations about relationships or social justice, but recognizing we don't have to be the voice of the church."

At the same time, much of the lyrical content on Good Monsters hone in on intimate emotions. "I had a talk early on with Matt talking about the lyrics, that some of these songs were focused in on such a small amount of an emotion," Haseltine continues. "Jars has pretty much tried to focus on some 'big picture' ideas. When we write songs, the lyrics can tend to be pretty lofty, and this season has represented more of being comfortable with not sharing the whole front end or back end of a story, but just sharing the moment you're in."

But what spurred the dual notion of creating a big, loud, in-your-face musical experience that also chronicles the minutiae of a momentary feeling? Again, it's the dichotomy of the internal and the external. "First, there was this singular intention of making a real rock 'n' roll record," Mason says. "The other part was to take what Dan was wrestling with and communicate a lot of the ideas about community and reconciling the best of who we are with the truth of our own darkness. Those are two different things that happened independently and yet worked well together naturally."

Those items fit together in lockstep through tracks like the opener Work and the follow-up track Dead Man, the album's first single, which wraps internal conflict in the record's most upbeat musical setting. It emerges on Mirror and Smoke, a collaboration with former Sixpence None The Richer singer Leigh Nash; on Light Gives Heat, a treatise on how ill-natured the attempt at good works can sometimes be; and on the epic Oh My God, a three-part exploration on both purposeful and unintentional intersections with God.

"I think there are more lyrics in that one song than there were on our entire last record," Haseltine says of Oh My God. "People all have their reasons for crying out to God. Some of those are really deep, deep doubts, and one of the questions in that third verse where it asks whether Jesus is real or not. Growing up in the church, I was scared to death to ask that question, because I didn't know whether the Gospel could stand up to the scrutiny. There are times when I wrestle with that even now, but it's a question that needs to be asked."

It's the work environment the members of Jars of Clay built for themselves while creating the songs for this record that helped bolster the courage to ask these kinds of tough questions. After a dozen years of writing, recording and touring together, the core members Haseltine, Mason, Odmark and Lowell felt it was time to shake up the way they work, and so they hunkered down in a room with longtime tour bassist Sands and new drummer Lutito (and the extra ears of arranger Ron Aniello) to shape the song ideas they had collected over the previous several months.

When they entered Nashville's state-of-the-art Blackbird Studio with engineer Vance Powell with songs intact, recording sessions became about existing as a band, playing and singing live, with many of Good Monsters' final tracks emerging almost exactly as you hear them now.

"All the hard work had been done, and we went into the studio knowing we had good songs we felt confident in," Mason says. "We were trying to access a place that the ear probably detects subtly, capturing the spirit of people playing together and enjoying it, that garage-y, fleshing-it-out-in-real-time feeling."

It doesn't take long to pick up on that feeling; you simply let that spirit fly out of the speakers. It even shows on acoustic songs like There Is A River, originally written as an experimental bluegrass tune; and on Surprise, a quiet, loping look at the nature of new experience. There's also a spirit of reverence for creative pursuit running through Good Monsters, as shown by the presences of guests like Nash, Ashley Cleveland, Kate York and the cover of Julie Miller's All My Tears, a longtime staple of Jars' live show.

"That was a scary song to try to do," Haseltine says. "We thought we had to tailor it to make it a little more rock and roll, and we were really scared because we wanted to honor how the song was originally written, about [singer/songwriter] Mark Heard and by Julie, who's experienced so much chronic pain in her life. All of these aspects go in to the song, and when we finished, we thought it was good, but it was really scary that we did it this way.

"But then [Julie's husband/acclaimed guitarist and songwriter] Buddy Miller came into the studio, and we just sat him down and played it for him, and he loved it and he said, 'Julie's going to think this is just an amazing gift.' That allowed us to have a lot more confidence about it."

There's no doubt confidence and experience played a part in Jars of Clay wanting to step out and try this new musical approach. Again, it's the balancing of dichotomy that truly allows excellence to shine through, and a freedom that washes over the results.

"I think we've taken the pressure off ourselves for trying to be a voice into anything bigger than us, in a way," Haseltine says. "What I mean is that we're coming to grips with that sometimes our smaller conversations are just as significant as trying to explain the context for religion in America in four-minute songs.

"I think we used to think we had to do that all the time, that if we were talking about something we had to find the exact right context for it, and make sure that it made the right sense, but this record isn't about that," he continues. "This record is a lot of those kinds of moments where I'm going to have to be comfortable giving my assessment of what's going on right now, even in the midst knowing that I'm probably wrong sometimes. There's a tremendous freedom in that, and that's what we're enjoying now."