Album Review :
Jars of Clay - Closer EP

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Artist: Jars of Clay
Album: Closer EP
Label
: Gray Matters
Buy It: eMusic or Amazon MP3
Reviewer: The Headless Horseman

1. Closer
2. Safe to Land
3. Love Song For A Savior (2008)
4. Flood (New Rain)
5. Prisoner of Hope

“Thank you so much. You’re ready for the angry rock ‘n roll of Jars of Clay.”
– Kevin Max

I was lucky enough to see Jars of Clay live this summer. It was a great performance, with highlights like “Work,” “Frail,” “God Will Lift Up Your Head” and “Crazy Times.” They’ve had a great career and written many awesome songs throughout it, and it showed in their live show. But after “Love Song For A Savior” faded out, Dan Haseltine announced to the crowd that they were going to play a new song (“now available on iTunes!”) called “Closer,” and a synth loop faded in on the speakers. I was immediately filled with anguish and sorrow.

“Closer” might be the dumbest song I’ve ever heard. The lyrics begin poorly (“Well you thought you let go/but you’re still hanging on/Mother earth’s slowing down/she’s still spinning around and we/are getting dizzy”) and get worse (“‘Cause the rockets we’re in/gets (sic) so cold and I miss your skin/That’s just how I’m feelin'”) — I mean, we don’t even have subject/verb agreement here, let alone decent imagery — while Haseltine and whoever sings these particular lines sing into a sort of Vocoder/weird vocal effect machine to the background of a synth intro that is moderately annoying at best and worthy of ultimate scorn otherwise. When it seems like things might be getting salvageable with a solid pre-chorus (“If you want my love/well, you’ve got to get close to me”), we drift into a lazy, uninspired, and eyebrow-raising chorus, with the particularly fun line “I want your kite strings tangled in my trees all wrapped up.” From there, we drift into a verse that rivals Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em’s “Get My Swag On” for the year’s worst lyrics: “You’re my shirt, I an arm/I’m the tick, you’re the bomb/You’re the L and the V/I’m the O and the E/Am I speaking clearly?” Actually, you’re speaking stupidly. This is some of the worst drivel I’ve ever read. You are the band that wrote “Work.” You are the band that wrote “Disappear,” a song that used amazing romantic imagery…I have no idea how this travesty happened. The music here is terrible, and the lyrics here are worse. Even if the former is forgiveable — Jars of Clay were never musicians extraordinaire, and if they want to experiment with cheesy synths, they’ve earned the right after their long career and their newfound freedom from Essential Records — the latter pushes the song beyond salvation. This is almost certainly the worst song Jars of Clay have ever written, and it actually winds up being one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard.

It would take a massive turnaround to save this EP at this point, and the band obliges, to an extent. “Safe to Land” is everything that its predecessor is not: musically interesting, emotionally compelling, and generally well-written. The gentle synth backgrounds aren’t overdone, and they meld well with the sparse guitar that is the song’s driving force. When Haseltine whispers that he’s “getting tired from all this circling/not much grace left on a broken wing,” we believe him and we feel broken and exhausted along with him. The song builds to an excellent bridge, even if the chorus takes the analogy a little too far (“Is it safe to land?/’Cause I’m not going far on an empty heart”). The other new cut, the closer “Prisoner of Hope,” isn’t quite as much of a departure for the band or quite as musically compelling, but it’s a touching listen. The band recorded this song for the documentary Sons of Lwala, which depicts the efforts of two Kenyan brothers sent to American medical schools who return to their village to open its first hospital. These new songs renew hope that the men of Jars of Clay haven’t gone totally mad, and that they haven’t lost their touch quite yet.

This reassurance is needed after the baffling decision to re-record two classic Jars of Clay songs, “Love Song For A Savior” and perhaps the band’s best known song, “Flood,” both from the band’s self-titled debut. Surprisingly, the former isn’t bad; while the drum machine handclaps threaten to totally ruin the song, the reinvention using what I believe is either a mandolin or a ukelele (I can’t tell) actually sounds really cool, and the synthesizers are understated and well-placed enough that the song can shine. This sounds like the heyday of the Smalltown Poets (if that band had used really annoying handclaps), and when Haseltine unleashes a falsetto at the end of the bridge, which has been taken up a whole-step from the version recorded 13 years ago, you have to give him props.

“Flood (New Rain)” is a whole different story, beginning with the awkward title and extending to every part of the butchered arrangement. The only listenable parts of the song were done better on both the original version and the live one on Furthermore. The chord progression of the chorus is totally inverted, and a jarringly out of place lead guitar is added for no apparent reason. The harmonies don’t hold the same power, and new musical sections are added at random, including a second verse bass solo and the synths set on “phaser” throughout the song. This would be marginally interesting, as the music parts are not individually terrible, but for the fact that the song’s backbone has been replaced with something so unlistenable and that the vocals towards the end of the song drone and wander, killing the climax of the song. This recording is indulgence untempered, an effort that takes the line between “cool experimentation” and “masturbatory noodling” and shatters it. If it wasn’t bad that the title track was so incompetently done, the band has recreated their best song as something little better than a misguided jam session. This should not be.

There’s a time in the life of almost every band who manage to stay together with a relatively stable lineup when their music just stops being anything short of embarrassing and awkward. They release CDs to general apathy, and when they tour, fans suffer through new material that pretends to be relevant to hear a “Don’t Stop Believing” or a “Back in Black” one more time. This happens even to the true legends and innovators: Queen exited with Innuendo (let’s not even talk about Paul Rodgers), Billy Joel’s swan song was River of Dreams, The Clash ended with Cut the Crap, and the band’s contemporaries far into their careers have released records like Until My Heart Caves In and (*insert any Newsboys album post-Thrive*). But I honestly thought Jars of Clay might avoid that fate, especially as Good Monsters was such a creative and enjoyable release. But their immediate follow-up, devoid of a label to reign them in, is so poorly done and indulgent in portions that it not only seems to answer the question whether Jars of Clay will ever fade but poses a new one: “Are they starting to fade right now?” By all means, download the two enjoyable new tracks, and if you want an interesting new take, grab the 2008 version of “Love Song For A Savior.” But in terms of what this means for the band, one can’t help but wonder what they are possibly thinking right now.

But at least the cover art is kind of cool.

Rating: 3/10. A mess conceptually, but with some decent parts.
Standout Tracks: “Safe to Land”
RIYL: Joy Electric covering Jars of Clay if Ronnie didn’t have any decent synth lines, Duran Duran, later Newsboys, weird synthesizers, ruining classics.