Jars of Clay has been putting out records for almost 20 years and they’ve managed to do something that few other bands with such longevity have: to still sound like themselves. That’s not to say that they’ve stayed the same. Far from it. Rather as the pop music zeitgeist has changed, and fads have come and gone, Jars of Clay has managed to avoid the pitfall of “being current”; along the way, they have concentrated on their sound and their message. As a result, they sound like the same band that released platinum hit “Flood” in 1995, only older and wiser.
Thematically, Inland is markedly different than their last effort, The Shelter. That record was full of big themes of social justice and serving others at high personal cost. Inland, however, is just what the name suggests — a look at the inside willing to ask some difficult questions. The whole record gets summed up in the first line of “Age of Immature Mistakes,” in which Dan Haseltine sings, “Dark thoughts are tangled/ I’m spinning into gold.” Inland is a bait and switch (in the best possible way). On the first listen, it sounds like a pleasant pop-heavy album, full of the celebration of, well, something. But once you delve into the songs, you realize that it’s the exact opposite. These are songs about broken people, difficult decisions and a struggle to love and be loved.
The most radio-friendly track on the album is “Reckless Forgiver.” The chorus is endlessly catchy and singable, with a plaintive violin that seems happy, but echoes the sadness of the lyrics. “Reckless Forgiver” is an introspective song, tinged with darkness and loneliness. In the first verse, Haseltine sings, “Every time I look in the mirror/ I’m in the shadow of doubt/ Maybe I’m as lost as the next guy/ Just have to find out.” It’s a cry for help to a distant God. The singer doesn’t want much, just that life promised to him in all of those Sunday morning hymns: “All I want is peace like a river/ Long life of sanity, love that won’t leave too soon/ Someone to pull out the splinters/ A reckless forgiver/ You know I’m talking to you.”
While “Reckless Forgiver” is an upbeat cry for help, “Skin and Bones” is a visceral, searing statement about the hard parts of relationships. It’s accented with a hopefulness that there will be an end to the hurt, but that hope seems far off: “Someday, someday soon we’re gonna open our eyes/ Break out the windows and fly/ I wanna see it.”
These themes resound throughout the record, perhaps most notable in “Loneliness and Alcohol.” This is a song that eats at the root of why we feel lost and alone. It asks hard questions about the center of our souls and why those who are lost feel that way, “Tell me of the world you’re leaving/ Why you’re swinging like a wrecking ball/ Bury all your love in secret/ In loneliness and alcohol.” This tune feels fresh and alive in a way that nothing about this subject should.
The one place the album falls a bit short is when the metaphor gets too saccharine. “Human Race” falls into this trap. This track simply feels like it’s trying too hard to make the point. “Look in my eyes, touch my face/ We’re limping along in the human race.” Inland is at its best when it feels painfully personal, and this track feels plastic and forced.
That being said, this record is gorgeous. Most notably, instead of just sitting on top of the instrumentation like like pop music, Dan Haseltine’s vocals are always complementary; they sound like another piece of the sonic puzzle. Also, the string arrangements and guitar parts are never simple or obvious. The low end is clean and tight. Musically, this record feels like early ’90s pop and has more in common with R.E.M. than with anything on the radar today. This is a sound that’s been hard-fought and won.
Jars of Clay has produced a fantastic record with Inland. Musically, it’s diverse, dark, and lovely. Lyrically, it’s complex, subtle, and poetic. These songs are not easy, but they are worth the effort.