Who We Are Instead is truly a remarkable album. It’s the kind of project you might put in your car stereo only to realize a full month later that not only is it still in the player, but you love it more today than when you first listened. It’s the kind of album that gives you a new favorite song every day. It’s that good. In fact, it’s as good or better than their classic debut, Jars of Clay.
Not to say the six albums between then and now haven’t been good. Many have been great, but the wonderfully organic, multi-textured debut album would be a hard act to follow for any artist. The sound was original and filled with great songs. The downside was that the runaway success of the album’s up-tempo track “Flood” pushed Jars into the realm of alternative rock, a sound they pursued, occasionally succeeded at, but never seemed quite comfortable with.
Who We Are Instead is more than a return to the band’s roots; it’s a complete reinvention. The first half of the last Jars’ project, Furthermore, hinted at this retooling. The Jars of today has stripped away all the extras. There are no drum loops and few electric guitars. Instead, acoustic guitar and piano shine through. Blues, country, gospel and pop combine with a healthy dose of early ’70s folk into a sound that is amazing, consistent and eclectic.
The ’70s influence comes to the forefront in the dead-on rendition of “Lonely People” by the popular ’70s band America. A Nashville sound permeates the traditional country vocalizations and train-like rhythm of “Trouble Is.” The track is kept modern with an occasional, subtle DJ record scratch.
Dan Haseltine’s vocals frequently communicate tenderness with his often-strained voice, but he has added a new, surprising soulfulness. On “Amazing Grace” and “My Heavenly,” Haseltine captures the spirit and earnestness of a gospel choir. The happy-go-lucky opening track, “Sunny Days,” is the most upbeat of the bunch. The lyrics bubble with optimism in the face of a bad day: “If you’re waiting for love / It’s a promise I’ll keep / If you don’t mind believing that it changes everything / Time will never matter.”
Time has mattered for Jars of Clay. Despite their overnight success, they have proven to be a mainstay in Christian music. With Who We Are Instead, they also prove things do get better with age.