Review: “Inland,” Jars of Clay

Jars of Clay’s “Inland” is a musical treat for fans of the band – its best effort since 2006’s “Good Monsters” and a return to the band’s traditional genre-bending and thoughtful lyrics. It’s a welcome outing, but boy, is it weird.

Not that that’s a bad thing. Regular Jars listeners know that its best albums are often its most idiosyncratic. If the underappreciated “If I Left the Zoo” is the band’s quirky, groundbreaking “Revolver,” then “Inland” is its “White Album,” a sprawling, messy synthesis of the band’s influences. The album feels urgent, as if the band needed to throw its ideas onto a record as soon as possible.

“Inland” sounds like the Jars album most divorced from the band’s Christian music industry roots, an oddity following the band’s previous offering, CCM-guest-heavy “The Shelter.” This album seems to be more centered in the band’s current headspace, less catechistically-focused and full of lyrics about community, unconditional love and the eschewing of artifice. The most Christian radio-friendly song on the album, “Reckless Forgiver,” doesn’t even appear to be headed to a single.

But it’s not just the lyrics that indicate “Inland’s” attempts to reach new audiences. The album is Jars’ first to be produced by Tucker Martine, whose work on alt favorites The Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens and more is a clear influence.

But “Inland” doesn’t sound like just the latest indie darling. Instead, it filters the genres and sounds it’s interested in through a blender, spitting them out into something that sounds fresh, offbeat, and, as always, uniquely Jars of Clay.

The album’s best track, “Human Race,” is a perfect example of “Inland’s” off-kilter stylings. With its electronic harmonies and the higher-than-normal tones of frontman Dan Haseltine, “Human Race” seems at first to be a product of Haseltine’s side project, The Hawk in Paris. As the song heads into its bridge, however, it’s suddenly assaulted by a bluesy guitar solo, breaking the song down to near-chaos before the chorus kicks back in, this time accompanied by the guitar and a previously-unheard horn.

At every turn, “Inland” aims to do something different, and it does so quite skillfully. “Age of Immature Mistakes” trades the band’s more organic lyrical metaphors for references steeped in current culture, “Pennsylvania” seems to channel the band’s folk roots through something akin to The Flaming Lips, and the driving guitar on “Loneliness and Alcohol” never lets up, as if it was a B-side of the band’s rock-n-rollin’ “Good Monsters.” The album is unified by Haseltine’s steady vocal presence and frequent use of melodic male background vocals, but the songs comprise a tasty variety pack, with samplings of bluegrass, electronica, folk and powerpop throughout.

Even the album’s jumbled-up track listing gets in on the act, dropping upbeat and downbeat songs one after the other (it ends with the relatively up-tempo title track, a departure from the band’s tradition of ending things with a softer touch).

In interviews, blog posts and social media over the last few years, Jars of Clay’s members have remarked on a period of transition, cutting ties with longtime label Essential late last decade and blazing its own musical and lyrical trail. Always railing against the limitations the traditional conservative Christian music industry tried to place on it, Jars seems to have finally broken free of the musical ghetto, conveying its message on its own terms now – musically and lyrically.

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