The debut album by Jars of Clay sold over a million copies, spent most of 1996 on the upper half of Billboard's album chart, and yielded a bona fide hit ("Flood"), making the young quartet not only the most commercially successful Christian rock band ever but also one of the most scrutinized.
With the release of Much Afraid, their new album, Jars of Clay now find themselves under the magnifying glasses both of Christians who hope they'll stumble and demonstrate the incompatibility of serving God and Mammon, and of cynics who hope they'll fizzle and prove their initial success a fluke.
Much Afraid will disappoint both. Indicative of neither backsliding nor one-hit-wonderdom, it suggests instead that the Jars have learned to take their musical and spiritual responsibilities seriously. "Our hope going into the recording of this album," the group's bassist, Steve Mason, told WORLD, "was that there would be a noticeable maturity in the music and the lyrics."
Indeed, the musical differences between the debut and the follow-up stand out. From its majestic string arrangements ("Tea and Sympathy") to its carefully layered vocal harmonies ("Crazy Times"), Much Afraid owes more to the orchestral pop of the Moody Blues, ELO, and the pre-disco Bee Gees than to any variety of grunge.
"One of the things that we used on the first record that we wanted to keep this time was live strings," Mr. Mason, 22, recalled. "We've all studied classical piano to one extent or another, so we have an appreciation for good string arrangements. Besides, we like the classy edge they add."
And although many of the lyrics (written by the lead singer, Dan Haseltine) suffer from the syntactical inscrutability that afflicts most contemporary pop, there's no mistaking the meaning of lines such as "Oh fast-pursuing lover, come/as angels dance around your throne" ("Hymn") and "Sweet Jesus, you never let me go" (the title cut).
"Good songwriters write from their experience," Mr. Mason explained, "so we wanted to make an album that reflected the last two years of our lives and the struggles we've gone through. Of course, since we all grew up in the church, our experience is also our Christian faith. That's what we know to be true. But that doesn't mean we paint a picture that's all fine and rosy. It means we deal with some hard issues, but with hope."
One hard issue that they haven't dealt with to everyone's satisfaction is the Southern Baptist boycott of Disney. To some, Jars' recent participation in Disneyworld's annual contemporary-Christian-music event, the "Night of Joy," calls into question both their judgment and their loyalty.
Mr. Mason, however, stands by his group's decision. "We played there because our philosophy is to take our message wherever we can. We'll play wherever we're invited. That doesn't mean that we're condoning anything. Anyway, I think it's unrealistic for people to look at Walt Disneyworld and ask, "Why are they allowing this?" Disney never said that they were Christians. It's unrealistic to expect them to respond as if they were."
That Jars of Clay is boycotting the boycott certainly hasn't hurt their sales. Much Afraid debuted in the top 10 in mid-September and has been in the top 20 since. Nevertheless, the group is getting a taste of the heat that can come from living beneath a lens.