Review Summary: Emboldened by success, Jars of Clay break out the electric guitars and reinvent themselves.
Jars of Clay’s self-titled release is a classic of the Christian rock genre. Steeped in rich harmonies, lush acoustic guitar, and electronic loops, Jars did something that no other Christian rock band had been able to in recent years; make the genre mainstream. “Flood,” found a mainstream audience and held them captive… and while most die-hard Jars fans have come to dislike the song, it single-handedly launched what is now a twenty year career in music for these boys from Greenville College (and helped propel several other artists into the limelight).
When crafting the songs for their follow-up, Much Afraid, Dan Haseltine set out to create an album that would endure. He wanted the album to have a classic feeling to it, one that would stand the test of time and shirk the “dated” sound of many 90’s albums. It seems ironic, looking back on it, that Jars reached back into their original demo to rework two songs for this album, “Fade to Gray” and “Frail.” So how did it go?
Jars of Clay unknowingly (or quite wittingly!) set the blueprint for their ever changing sound with Much Afraid. From the opening track “Overjoyed” that explodes with their first use of electric guitar, to the melancholic and orchestrated sounds of set-list staple and fan favorite, “Frail,” Jars not only managed a fantastic second album… but an album that could stand on its own two legs. Much Afraid forgoes the overt Christian theme of their S/T and sees the band moving toward the more secular message that they would embrace over much of their career.
The heavier emphasis on electric guitar though does not translate into more straight ahead rock. The album dips and curves through the somber (the aforementioned “Frail”), the atmospheric (“Weighed Down”) and contemplative praise (“Much Afraid”). Jars of Clay manage to convey the emotional distress of humanity while also allowing for a light at the end of the tunnel all the while rarely outright mentioning Jesus. (the exceptions being the title track and “Hymn”)
There are a few tunes that recall where Jars had been. “Portrait of an Apology,” wouldn’t feel too out place on their first release and while “Tea and Sympathy” has a sneaky electric, when stripped to the bone, it could fit right next to a song like “He.” The signature harmonies are still alive (best experienced in a live setting) and the keyboards fill out the sound with a heavy handed depth, making the Toad the Wet Sprocket influence a little less obvious then it appeared on their first album.
While the dark and brooding “Frail” is often seen as their crowning achievement, it would be hard to ignore the slow burner turned uptempo acoustic rocker,“Truce.” Bringing back drum loops and melodic keyboard work, the song feels like it may sit in the pocket, drawing out slowly over the course of its 3:11. Instead, it opens up on a tom hit to a fast paced strummed acoustic that allows for some of the more interesting electric guitar work of the album near the close. The song is a great connection to Jars of Clay past and present at this point with the dark mood, the acoustic and the electric.
While Much Afraid failed to measure up to their self-titled album record sales, through experimentation and creativity, it managed to not only find an audience at the time, but has endured quite wel, capturing a bit of that “timeless” feel Dan was aiming for and a high seat at the table for Jars of Clay fans.