While there will always be wide disagreement on most aspects of Ronald Reagan’s life, there is general agreement about one of them: He was comfortable in his own skin. He knew who he was and what he believed, and didn’t have to pretend otherwise. He was influenced, to be sure: by a president named FDR, a book titled That Printer Of Udell’s, and a devout Mother who loved God and him (in that order)–but the sum of who he was was always larger than any single influence.
That quality is as rare in rock bands as it is in politicians, for though rock bands may not plan vacations based on polling data (as President Clinton once did), they have been known to put their fingers in the air and make music that they know their fans will like even if they personally don’t.
When the modern rock outfit Jars of Clay released their CD Who We Are Instead last November, I was stunned. Was the album really that good? Just to be sure, I decided to let it sit around for several months and make sure. I have. And it is.
As the title suggests, this is a band whose members have finally figured out who they are, and who they are not–and the result for the listener is an enjoyable one.
Of course the greatest politician or rock star prides himself on his originality, but, like Reagan, Jars of Clay has its influences. Its fixation with the Beatles and U2 appears to have passed, and now the band seems instead to have settled into a Johnny Cash groove in more ways than one. Musically, it’s clear that the Man In Black’s influences are all over the record, but the significance of Cash’s sway is in the band members’ ability to be direct about their faith, as Cash was, without the slightest trace of embarrassment.
So while there are still tracks aimed at the most godless of mainstream listeners, like a cover of America’s “Lonely People,” Jars also shows some spiritual muscle on tracks like the original song “Amazing Grace,” the steady “Trouble Is,” and the stunning “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet,” all brilliant and timely counterpunches to the common wisdom that rock bands that take God seriously must shroud their musical religiosity in vagueness to appeal to the masses.
Of course Johnny Cash had this figured out decades ago, but putting it into practice got him ostracized from both the Christian-rock and godless-rock worlds of the ’70s and ’80s. It was only when producer Rick Rubin picked Cash up and let him make records that reflected his entire worldview–including his faith–that Cash reached his creative and spiritual zenith.
In that sense, Cash has set an example for all in the God-rock movement, and Jars appears to be among the first to take his lessons to heart. Like Cash himself, Jars singer and chief songwriter Dan Haseltine frames his spirituality in the context of the ruggedness of the American South, and in the context of man’s struggle against his inner demons of despair and loneliness, and, ultimately, the hope of redemption.
Who We Are Instead is not all serious business, however, beginning with the opening track “Sunny Days,” sonically another nod to ’70s pop-rocker America, with traces of the carefree optimism of Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do.” Likewise, “I’m In The Way” may have a serious message, but Haseltine delivers it with a sense of fun and mischief.
While previous records had standout tracks like “Flood,” “Liquid,” or “These Ordinary Days,” the entire collections were somewhat uneven. But there isn’t a weak song among the tracks on Who We Are Instead, which makes it an enjoyable listen: no song-skipping necessary.
For Haseltine and Jars of Clay, the irony of being liberated from U2’s shadow may be that, in discovering more authentic influences and allowing those to bring them closer to their true character as a band, Jars now has a shot at winning over a new generation of fans, many of whom had likely never heard of them before. Among these, ironically enough, is U2’s front man Bono, who recently noted, “I’ve had their version of the song ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’ in my car for a year now, and you know what–it never has failed me yet.”
–Mark Joseph is the author of Faith, God, and Rock + Roll: From Bono to Jars of Clay : How People of Faith Are Transforming American Popular Music.