Not cool, thank God
Jars of Clay discovers that trying too hard makes baby Jesus cry
“Contemporary Christian Music” is having a crisis of faith. Finally, it seems, all the curt dismissals—as “worship” music or watered-down poz-pop pap or Chicken Soup for the Lite Rock Soul—have gotten to it. The industry’s flagship magazine, CCM, recently changed its name to Christ, Culture, Music, hoping to shed the (correct) belief that “contemporary Christian” is a euphemism for “laughably outdated.” New bands whose careers the genre helped launch—Switchfoot, the Fray, Evanescence, Lifehouse—have disowned it. The word “crossover” no longer makes sense; most bands whose members happen to affirm the Nicene Creed don’t see a need to ghettoize themselves in churches and Family Christian Stores.
This is a good thing, mostly.
But there’s also another kind of retreat afoot, from the orgy of commercialism that surrounds all pop music—maybe Christian music especially. A retreat from the feverish, often foolish attempts at “relevance,” at making coolness an article of faith. If you grew up listening to Christian rock (come on, hands up; I am not the only one), you know exactly what this is. Christian teenagers were led to believe in an industry that sold Christian bands and promised rewards, souls “won” and friends made, if only we’d invite non-believing friends to concerts. We would show “the world.” We would make our ska/punk/emo/rap almost as good as theirs. We would grow sideburns and get tattoos and piercings. They’d just have to listen to Christian music, have to realize that Jesus was cool, have to see that we were cool.
What an awful way to run a music scene. And a religion.
Jars of Clay gets it. They tried to be cool for a while. Their first album, a modest, self-produced affair, was quiet and pretty, an insanely best-selling, runaway smash hit in the Christian market. Somehow, “Flood” became a rock single. Its bravado was so demanding for a song without any electric guitars or drums, which led fans to require more of the band—they wanted the energy of “Flood” again and again, needed louder vocals, flashier shows, guitar solos.
Jars of Clay tried to oblige, and their second attempt at a big radio single, “Crazy Times,” from their second (and best) album, Much Afraid, almost made it. But behind the beefed-up production they were still just skinny, shy white dudes who met at a Christian college, none of them rock stars or even particularly commanding vocalists. You almost felt embarrassed for them. They never quite managed to live up to the electric guitars awkwardly thrust upon them.
Lately, though, the band has been on to something—a counterintuitive but powerful idea. Allowing that a drastic inability to muster up the testosterock people want is their weakness, they haven’t just made their weakness their strength; they’ve actually made weakness their strength, period. Lately, no band does fragile better than Jars of Clay—and really, that’s remarkable in the world of Christian rock. This music, as a rule, is most welcoming to sentiments of the sunshine, lollipops and rainbows variety. Despair, uncertainty and frailty are not in. But the Jars runneth over with it.
The band’s latest album, Good Monsters, is definitely a pop record. The singles are catchy and complex. But the album’s real centerpiece is the wounded “Oh My God.” A kind of spiritual “Day in the Life,” it’s two songs smashed together. In the first half, Dan Haseltine sings his doubt, punctuating the verses with that three-word phrase, which functions equally as supplication and question. The second half is a laundry list of generally effed-up people uttering the same phrase. All the while the backing vocals repeat “Oh My God” like a mantra, while the song builds, quarter-note by quarter-note, to a glorious conclusion.
The climax is short-lived: There has been no rocking out, no questions answered, no guitar solo. Just quiet, persistent weakness. Jars of Clay is not cool, thank God.