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Monday, November 04, 2013

Jars of Clay -- If I Left the Zoo

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7/10

Man, I haaated this album when it was first released! If I Left the Zoo is the point where a lot of people deserted the Jars of Clay bandwagon. Those who did ended up missing the seven excellent albums that followed, but I can't really blame them for leaving. I almost did myself. Thankfully, I'm stubborn, and I don't quickly leave a band I like behind. With that said, If I Left the Zoo definitely isn't what anyone signed up for.
Some publicist recognized this before If I Left the Zoo was released, panicked, and tried to push the album as "returning to the sound of the band's debut." This is true in the fact that Jars of Clay use a lot of acoustic guitar on both albums...and that's about it.
Where Jars of Clay's debut sounded deep and full, If I Left the Zoo is really bare-bones, unadorned pop-rock at its core. That's about my least favorite genre in the world, and I think most of the band's ex-fans felt the same way. Of course, this band meets that genre with the same level of excellence that they've met any sound they've attempted in their illustrious career, but I can only see that with fourteen years of retrospection. Even with that personal growth, and the knowledge that Jars of Clay would one day make a lot more albums that were much more my thing, If I Left the Zoo is still a little hard for me to digest.
These songs are extremely unadorned. They only use what they absolutely need, and that's a tough thing to accept in a band that has shown they can do so much with more. All of the evocative atmosphere of the band's previous work is gone. When strings pop up, they are more whimsical than powerful. Also, the fact that the band dialed up the pop-aspect of their melodies still pains my ears a little. They can be so much more subtle than this, and the stripped down aspect of the music only highlights the poppiness. The lead single, "Unforgetful You," might as well be the shiny poster-boy for this aspect of the album.
It would be a disservice to If I Left the Zoo to pretend like the whole thing is a poppy mess, though (this sentence was a prepositional mess). The only messiness is found in the fact that the band were searching for a sound here. "Grace" hints at the more alt-country flavor the band would pursue with high payoff a few years down the line. "No One Loves Me Like You" shows that Jars of Clay can turn bare-bones into an asset, expressing aching emotion as well as any other song in their catalog. The songs are here--even at their weakest, Jars of Clay still write great ones. The most powerful is album closer, "River Constantine," which displays the kind of atmosphere fans expected from the band.

So overall, If I Left the Zoo isn't a wash. It contains a handful of great songs, and if anything, the rest is interesting, if not ideal. If I Left the Zoo is the bridge between the early conception of Jars of Clay, and what the band could truly be. Bridges are cool, right?

1999 Essential
1. Goodbye, Goodnight 2:53
2. Unforgetful You 3:20
3. Collide 4:46
4. No One Loves Me Like You 3:48
5. Famous Last Words 3:26
6. Sad Clown 4:27
7. Hand 3:36
8. I'm Alright 3:40
9. Grace 4:31
10. Can't Erase It 3:35
11. River Constantine 4:48

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