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The Long Fall Back to Earth
Artist: Jars of Clay
Label: Gray Matters / Essential / Sony Music
Time: 14 tracks / 59:06
Dan Haseltine, Charlie Lowell, Steve Mason, and Matt Odmark – collectively known as Jars of Clay – have crafted a worthy follow-up to their critically-acclaimed Good Monsters project. The Long Fall Back to Earth is Jars of Clay examining the intricacies of interpersonal as well as God/man relationships, and the result is an album that’s more personal, more user-friendly, and more sonically-unified than its predecessor.
With influences like early U2, Tears For Fears, Coldplay and even a bit of newsboys, The Long Fall Back to Earth synthesizes elements of classic rock, modern pop, and the synth-pop sound of the ‘80s. Oddly enough, even with the wide-ranging influences just mentioned, the over-all sound of the album is more unified stylistically than Good Monsters, which suffered (in this writer’s opinion) from multiple rock personalities. Lowell’s keyboards have a decidedly ‘80s electronic presence throughout the project and Haseltine’s vocals, the band’s most unifying sound (and perhaps an acquired taste), is less mannered and more expressive than in the past. The fact that this is a band that, for all intents and purposes, exists without a permanent bass player or drummer, is an obstacle that has caused them to lack a strong musical identity in the past, but on this album they seem to finally sound like a real band - not songwriters accompanied by studio musicians.
“The Long Fall,” essentially a short instrumental introduction to the nearly one-hour album, leads directly into “Weapons,” one of the most memorable songs on this disc. “Lay your weapons down / Lay your weapons down,” sings Haseltine, “there are no enemies in front of you….” The song is a big-hook pop/rock anthem with good repetition and an effective bridge featuring only vocals, bass and drums (remember – bass and drums are only on record and on tour, but not part of the band).
The hooks continue on “Two Hands,” as the Jars speculate, lyrically: “I use one hand to pull you closer / the other to push you away / If I had two hands doing the same thing…” The lyrics are more human, more vulnerable, more introspective than on Monsters.
Just in case you forgot that this was Christian rock, there’s the newsboys-like “Closer,” a radio-ready ‘big drums,’ keyboard and bass song with a section that resembles Toby Mac’s latest CCM hit, “Lose My Soul.” The tasteful horn and string (or synth?) work of “Headphones” is a needed counter to the bouncy pop of “Don’t Stop,” which follows it. Those instances are as close to commercial pop as the album gets – from this point to the end of The Long Fall Back to Earth, Jars of Clay delivers some solid, if easily accessible modern pop music.
There’s an almost Simon and Garfunkle quality to the vocal harmonies and timbre of the pop ballad, “Boys (Lesson One),” and a tasteful horn and bell-like keyboard melody on “There Might Be a Light,” which might remind the listener of some of Jon Foreman’s solo work. On the other end of the spectrum is the heavier, more driving sound of “Hero,” an anthemic U2 style song with a heavy drum sound and a synth on overdrive.
Co-produced by Jars of Clay,
Mitch Dane, and Ron Aniello, The Long Fall Back to Earth has a warm,
full sound (despite the ‘80s influence), well written songs, and the sound
of a band that finally has a strong identity – these individual tracks
are obviously all part of an identifiable whole. There are hooks to spare,
plenty of appetizing rhythmic treats for drummers, interesting lyrics,
and very good production. No new ground is broken here, but the old ground
is covered very nicely.
It’s not just the lurid pink disc that makes this release stand out. Over time, Jars of Clay have fashioned a clear identity – based around Dan Haseltine’s distinctively vulnerable vocal style – but they subtly tweak their sound for each disc. This one glows.
Its dark lyrical theme of the frailty of human relationships and the spectre of divorce is deliberately disguised by its often bouncy retro ‘80s synth lines – just try “Forgive Me” for the incongruity at its most powerful. The cohesion of the music across this fourteen-track filler-free feast contrasts with the less even, though critically lauded, “Good Monsters”.
Intentionally or not, there are several soundalike sections. Brief vocals on the otherwise instrumental “The Long Fall” have a definite Dark Side of the Moon feel; an ahh-ahh bank of harmonies on “Weapons” seems straight from The Herd’s “From the Underworld;” Haseltine’s normally unique vocals take on a Duran Duran feel (or is it Tears for Fears?) during “Heaven” and “There Might Be a Light” is probably as close to REM as they have ever come.
The compelling instrumental spaces that bookend the disc are a very welcome. The closing few minutes of final track “Heart” feel like addictive, looping electronica, but they have real drums and some jangly guitar. “The Long Fall” is a strong enough intro piece to excite the listener about what is to come, right until it crashes into the memorable “Weapons.” This first ‘proper’ song is a striking track, both for its insistent hook of “Lay your weapons down / There are no enemies in front of you” and the desperation beneath it to communicate without having to be so defensive.
But even after their (arguably) best ever start to a disc, they rise another notch with “Heaven” and the desperate “Closer” – the first of five Ron Aniello co-productions. He interweaves synth sounds, lines and layers with the intricacy of a champion lasagne maker preparing for competition. The latter track’s lyrics ache with wanting “I don’t understand why we can’t get close enough / I want your kite strings tangled round my tree, all wrapped up / You’re the tick, I’m the bomb ... I miss the shivers in my spine very time we touch.”
The sound of hurting runs through the core of this disc, perhaps even more starkly on the next track “Safe to Land” where the title hints at treading on eggshells.”Getting tired from all this circling / Not much grace left on a broken wing / I search for shelter near the mines we swept / I guess forgiveness hasn’t happened yet / So I’m asking, Is it safe to land?” On “Headphones” they use the title to update the picture of an emu sticking its head in the sand, and “Scenic Route“ is another tense piece that is more about preparing for dialogue than the tricky negotiations themselves.
There are a couple of places of refuge from the tension. The mellotron-soaked “Boys (Lesson One)” is a father-to-son talk, where the dad tries to ease the pressure that his son feels: “I’ve been where you’re going and it’s not that far / It’s too far to walk, but you don’t have to run / You’ll get there in time.” The first single, “Two Hands,” is probably as much about overcoming fears and caring about others, even when we don’t feel up to it, as it is about getting things wrong in a relationship.
In the way that it refuses to shrink from the aching (the Lesson One of the title is “Do not hide”); in the catalogue of striking tracks and intelligent, poetic lyrics; its sonorous richness; the virtually total lack of any weak musical moments – and therefore a top-two ranking in their canon – this collection is to Jars of Clay what Achtung Baby is to U2: painful, but brilliant.