jars-of-clay-inlandI am that rare Jars of Clay fan who does not hold their debut album in highest esteem. It is not a bad album by any means–“Worlds Apart” is a classic–but it never reached me the way If I Left the Zoo (my first Jars album), Who We Are Instead and Good Monsters did. Those three are the albums by which I judge their output. In certain circles, that statement would have me discredited. So I may not be the best person to write this review. Of course, that has never stopped me before.

My usual ritual in the weeks leading up to the release of a new JoC album is to work my way through the catalog. Reminding myself of where they began and the distinctive shifts in style throughout their career helps me place the new album in the fullness of their sound. No matter how they decide to make themselves over with each release, they never lose their quintessential Jars-ness. Something about Dan Haseltine’s voice and the way it interacts and drifts with the music–which is often airy and, maybe, unconsciously joyful–is unique, unlike any other band. Inland may be the closest they’ve come to fully expressing what makes their sound unique.

hqdefaultThe songs on Inland manage to extract (weary) joy out of rather difficult and bleak places. This is music for people who find themselves in imperfect situations, with no clear “right” answers in the midst of their broken relationships and lives. Don’t get me wrong, Jars never revels in the chaos and crisis, but they neither do they try to give hard times a positive spin. They call a spade a spade. Yet even where the lyrics seem relatively forlorn, the music lifts our heads, bringing us back onto the war-torn shores of the inland away from our self-made islands.

“Love in Hard Times” finds itself in the middle of a broken-down relationship where two people are at the cusp of giving up and the transparent lyrics speak of being “just a little bit tired to fight for something better” and yet the speaker, in the very next line, shares poignantly that “the worst of it is I think of you more than ever.” This tension, which everyone has felt in a relationship, is what Jars calls love in the hard times, love that reaches “across those battle lines.” These are striking words, especially in a culture of convenience that often finds it easier to leave than to locate joy in the death of relational expectations.

Elsewhere, Jars broadens the scope to make broader social statements. “Age of Immature Mistakes” and “Human Race” look into the ironic nature of a globe that has become smaller by means of social networking, yet finds itself just that much more lonely and that much more apt at making the same “immature mistakes” humanity has always made. We “don’t know enough about love so we make it up/ Ooh, like hearts in the hands of a child till they break it up.” “The promise of love has been downgraded” goes a verse in “Human Race” as Dan Haseltine’s singing speaks to the nature of our society selling itself short, giving in to that which is easily attained instead of striving and hoping for that something better which is just beyond our grasp.

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At the end of the day, Inland represents something of a manifesto for Jars of Clay. It is the siren song for a band that has come from CCM roots to independent labels to self-production while never losing that unique sound and witness in the world. This is a manifesto of love “as the ruins fall,” as C.S. Lewis so aptly put it. Jars of Clay attempts, with this album, to answer the question of what love looks like in this present age and its status in contemporary American society. It is still broken because humanity is still broken, but as with every era, it is never incapable of being redeemed because the promise delivered in the ancient days and fulfilled two thousand years ago still finds a foothold in the embattled and bloodied remains of our relationships and everyday existence. It is the message delivered to our lonely, disconnected islands from the inland, calling us to come back to port.