Jars of Clay, Inland as reviewed by The Phantom Tollbooth

Have Jars of Clay finally topped their landmark debut?



Artist: Jars of Clay
Label: Gray Matters
12 Tracks (50:42) 


Age is a funny thing. Ask most twenty somethings, and they’ll tell you they have it all figured out. Give those same young hearts another two decades to gain a bit of real-world experience and, soon enough, they begin to realize that the things they thought were a slam dunk aren’t nearly so black and white, the dreams they had on the cusp of graduating college haven’t quite panned out like they’d hoped, and love is far, far more complicated a proposition than they ever would have imagined. Jars of Clay front man, Dan Haseltine, was 22 when his band’s eponymous major-label debut first hit the shelves. True to his age, and that of his band mates (who are all younger than him), the debut effort was steeped in the energy and exuberance that comes with first stepping out and following one’s proverbial musical muse. Here, nearly two decades on from that milestone event, the latest installment in the JoC catalog bears the unmistakable imprint of four men, at or near age 40, pausing to look back and take stock of their lives.

In “Age of Immature Mistakes,” Haseltine confesses that he and his significant other “Don’t know enough about love/ So we make it up.” “Reckless Forgiver” (“Every time I look in the mirror/ I’m in the shadow of doubt”) is similarly laden with feelings of uncertainty and regret. The slightly country-inclined “Human Race” laments the inherent impermanence of life (“Hit the keys/ But the notes aren’t sustaining”), while “Love in Hard Times” finds the singer regretful of his present situation (“It’s a little bit late/ To try something better”), yet determined to change it for the better (“Reach across those battle lines/ And still love in the hard times”). The album’s most transcendent moment, however, comes on the absolutely beautiful piano ballad, “Fall Asleep,” which tells the story of a relationship destined not to last in language that can only be described as modern-day poetry.

Kicking things off with its invigorating drum-loop-laden rhythms, other-worldly monk chants and a hearty cry of “Yeah!” from Haseltine and his cohorts, the group’s self-titled freshman outing shot out of the proverbial starting gate at full speed and, from the bracing syncopation of “Liquid” all the way through to the stirring, acoustic hidden track, “Four Seven,” rarely came up for air. This time out, with the exception of the leadoff cut, “After the Fight,” and perhaps “Loneliness and Alcohol,” things are generally far more subdued. This isn’t to say the new release lacks impact.  The propulsive rhythms and jangling guitar tones of “Love in Hard Times” evoke images of a forlorn traveler riding on an outbound train at twilight. And the high-lonesome fiddle sound of “Reckless Forgiver” render it as memorable as anything the group committed to tape during the mid-‘90s. Generally speaking, though, the material on the new record is far less immediate, working its way under the listener’s skin and sinking into long-term memory far more slowly. Once there, though, its sway is just as sure and its impression just as indelible.

It has often been postulated that the best works of art are the ones that move you at the deepest level. If such a hypothesis is, indeed, a valid acid test, then Inland is an unqualified success in that regard. Indeed, perhaps ironically enough, even with its heavy-hearted, often mournful tone, the album, despite its solemn nature, is as inspirational as anything the Jars men have ever composed  – encouraging younger listeners to treasure their youth, and those who are older to press on in the face of seemingly overwhelming sadness and regret, and look for the deeper truths that knit their past, present and future so intrinsically together.

In “Human Race,” Haseltine laments the superficiality of so much of modern life, spinning lines about “another song you forget by the ending.” Like no other record they’ve made, including the debut, the sublimely poignant new project veritably flies in the face of such sentiment. Twenty years on from their humble beginnings, the self-titled offering is rightly hailed as a masterpiece. Twenty more from now, if there is any justice, the new release will be regarded in exactly the same light. An absolutely brilliant artistic statement and arguably the band’s most compelling offering to date, Inland has, at long last, equaled the quartet’s landmark debut and taken its place as the new benchmark against which all of its successive efforts should be measured.




Bert Gangl, The Phantom Tollbooth (08-26-2013)

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