Sunday, August 5, 2007

Jars of Clay - Liquid

Jars of Clay - "Liquid"

I spent most of my childhood living (or "stuck," as I often complained) in an isolated subdivision surrounded by cornfields on all sides. It might as well have been an actual island, for my brother and I were strictly prohibited from venturing beyond the boundaries of it and out onto the dangerous highways that lead to promising but forbidden evidence of real human civilization and commerce. The gas station 3 miles west of our home was off-limits to us. My friends, on the other hand, routinely made this journey without fear of punishment. This filled me with a sense of envy and humiliation that I can still feel today; looking at the journey now, it's almost insulting to think that my parents felt I was incapable of undertaking it without, well... dying. In hindsight, though, I can clearly see that it was more likely that they proposed this rule to protect my brother rather than myself. I can understand their dilemma but I wish they would have chosen to address it differently than they did. Perhaps, maybe, by allowing me to go out with my friends by myself? But no, nearly every bicycle ride, every trip to a neighbor's house, every trek into the then-undeveloped, wooded, and empty lots of our subdivision was tainted by the unnecessary and often tragic complications of having a rude, obnoxious, and confrontational younger sibling tagging along on every outing. When he was not instigating fights between himself and my friends (causing me to choose sides, where I would inevitably lose face in front of my peers or come home to face the inevitable discipline of my parents, eternally unsympathetic to my plight), he was outright challenging me in front of them. Again, there was no way for me to "win" in these situations, no possible positive outcome, no way out other than simple retreat. I'd go home and hide in my closet with a book while my parents wondered what on Earth could possibly be troubling me.

Even more alluring was the city to the east, a busy suburb full of stores, malls, streets with real sidewalks... I only made this trip once, somehow unaccompanied by my brother, and only in total secrecy. It was an exhausting three-hour ride best taken down the local bike trail. My parents had warned me of its dangers, the attackers/molesters lurking in the bushes, ready to spring out at any moment to do (literally) unspeakable things to you. I certainly wasn't the world's most precocious child, but even I knew better than to believe those stories. I hopped on my new mountain bike (several sizes too big for me, but I couldn't have asked for a bike smaller than any of my friends', naturally) and followed my friends into town. After going to the bike shop and Dairy Queen, we started back. My pedal fell off halfway home and I was abandoned at a country store with some of their pocket change. I don't remember any specific punishment that followed after my parents drove out to pick me up; perhaps they thought that I would learn from the experience, that God would know what I was up to even if they didn't, and that little accidents like that were His way of keeping me in line.

Clarification: my parents were not (and are not!) the insensitive Christian stereotypes that I just described them as. But like any new believers, they experienced a long period of adjusting their faith from strict dogma to practical, flexible, and compassionate understanding. From an Eriksonian point of view, though, their strict adherence to James Dobson-style parenting and excessively freedom-curbing limitations at the dawn of my adolescence was developmentally disastrous to me. Isn't this supposed to be a magical time in every young man's life? Taking risks, exploring, learning how to work with and relate to others? Every time I see a group of 12 year old skaters in my neighborhood today, I cringe, wondering what that kind of freedom must feel like. I won't even go into what was going through my mind this week when I saw one of them pull out a videocamera out of his pocket to film his friends doing ollies off the sidewalk. Holy shit. Kids today, etc.

I have good memories too, though. Sometimes I was able to escape, and found refuge down the street at my friend Ken's house. He was one year younger than me. His sister Cara was in my grade. We'd hang out in their basement playing pool and darts and making chalk drawings on the wall. We'd spent hours jumping on Cara's backyard trampoline, listening to her CDs: Smashing Pumpkins, Weezer, Nine Inch Nails, Bjork, a few others that I won't mention but surely many other good ones that I've forgotten about. She had a good collection of cassingles, too. Gin Blossoms, Radiohead, Silverchair... there were times back then that I felt completely powerless and at the mercy of my circumstances, but whenever we were together, just listening to music in their house or in the backyard, everything felt just fine and right. We were, at least for a while, quite a team. They were youth group kids too, and like me, they'd probably Accepted Christ at some point before high school as well. But that didn't stop us from having fun, being kids, and rebelling against our parents to a normal and healthy degree. I can only imagine the kind of trouble we could have gotten into if nothing had changed. It would have been good for us, really.

In the middle of the summer before high school, my family moved away from that subdivision. It was a short move, just into town about ten minutes away, so I didn't have to change schools or anything. But this was ten minutes away from them, by car, so it might as well have been a hundred miles to me. Getting my parents to drive me there was difficult and mildly awkward to have to ask for, so for much of the next year, I saw them less and less frequently, and became less and less involved in their lives. I don't remember exactly when it happened and I still don't understand what could have prompted such at change, but at some point in 1995, Cara found Jesus again and never looked back.

What followed was a fundamental change in her entire personality. She grew more involved in our youth group, and over time took on the role of spiritual leader among the small group of us who'd congregated together both there and at the lunch table at school. She made clear her intentions to dispose of her old CDs, and I can remember fruitlessly trying to convince her to at least sell them away for cash (or at least letting me take the burden of them off her hands). It was painful to think of those perfectly good/expensive Nirvana and Green Day CDs going to waste, but there they went. Her brother soon followed her lead, and soon my teenage utopia was infected with WWJD bracelets, Third Day concerts, and youth group sing-along/hop-along songs that I had no choice but to participate in. There are long stories surrounding each of these incidents but I won't dwell on them any longer for now.

By this time, music had become a very important part of my identity, one that I was now destined to explore alone. My friends were suddenly obsessed with bands like Audio Adrenaline, Newsboys, and Johnny Q. Public (this was at least a year or two before they moved on to Five Iron Frenzy and All Star United, which I could enjoy in moderation). Most of this was embarrassingly bad, full of lyrical cliches and devoid of any imagination or experimentation. I was growing more and more obsessed with Sonic Youth, REM, and electronic music, so most of what my friends were listening to just felt... childish? Choosing to listen to and spend money on this stuff seemed like a masochistic act of pointless self-discipline or even intellectual self-censorship. I don't even know how they chose to define or understand "Christian rock." (I suspect that to them, it was anything that was played on the weekend Christian rock show on WCFL -- 104.7 FM, Morris, Illinois -- or anything that was sold at the Christian store at the mall.) This would at least explain why my later attempts to share my enthusiasm for Danielson Famile or Pedro the Lion were met with confusion and indifference. Being trapped in a car with them and a 20-CD case full of this stuff was horribly annoying. I'm not exaggerating when I say that it's probably comparable to how most people would feel if they were stuck in a backseat listening to Merzbow or Twin Infinitives or something.

The first time that our youth group ventured out to the Cornerstone Festival, it was probably the summer of 1996, so I would have been a few weeks from turning 17. We loaded up in the van and I prepared myself for the road trip from hell, knowing my companions' choice of soundtrack and their fondness for singing campfire hymns with their hands in the air. Instead, we probably listened to a lot of MXPX, who we later saw that night at the main stage. Inspired by the sight of some crowd surfers near the stage, Cara asked us to lift us up and onto the crowd, which was actually did despite the fact that doing this from the back of the crowd and trying pass a person forward is a foolish and dangerous thing to attempt. Somehow we lifted her up -- doing this without grabbing her ass was incredibly difficult and impractical, but somehow I was able to muster up the strength -- and away she went. Suddenly, everyone was asking us to provide the same service, so we spent much of the rest of the show lifting people into the air, sometimes nearly dropping them on their heads in the process. Like so much Christian rock, we were doing our best to imitate the real thing, but failing in embarrassing fashion.

But MXPX wasn't the only thing we listened to in the van. The first Jars of Clay album, which apparently had been out for nearly a year (Wikipedia says it was released on October 24, 1995), was played in its entirety. By then I'd surely already heard "Flood," which was fast-becoming a crossover hit on... secular radio! It peaked at #37 on the Billboard 200. It also got heavy play on alt. rock radio (#88 on Q101's year-end list, fwiw), which seems inconceivable today given the takeover by nu-metal anger merchants in the following years, but completely natural given the ambiguously spiritual overtones that half of those bands (Creed, Evanescence, P.O.D.) commonly dealt with. Jars of Clay could never quite match the success of "Flood" or their first album, seeing diminishing returns with each follow-up, even to this day. But their first effort was enough to place them among the greats of Christian rock: Larry Norman, Petra, or DC Talk.

But Jars of Clay sounded nothing like any of those bands, or like any band at the time, though their influence on a generation of Christian bands to follow is impossible to overstate. They weren't merely "better" than other Christian bands. Maybe they were, but that in itself would be a misleading statement. They didn't invent anything "new," but certainly weren't content to be another carbon copy band on the "if you like... then you'll like" posters on every Christian bookstore's wall. Christian rock has never been known for its subtlety or restraint, but Jars of Clay were, at least for their first two albums, content not to mimic the styles or sounds of other bands. The lyrics are never preachy, trite, or sophomorically metaphoric. What they are is hard to categorize. They're certainly "Biblical," but more than just scripture set to music like the dreadful trend of Praise & Worship music that's dominated the last ten years of Christian music.

"Liquid" was the lead track on Jars of Clay, and along with "Flood," was produced by Adrian Belew. I don't know much about Belew and haven't listened to much King Crimson, but those two songs just happen to be the best ones on the entire album, and I get the feeling that's not a coincidence. The song opens with strings, some great vocal harmonies, and (sampled?) Gregorian chant could be hilariously bad in the hands of lesser bands, but fits into the mix beautifully here. Christian rock production is characterized by terrible emphasis on bass and drums. Fat, "funky" bass sounds and loud, overmixed drums are usually all you need to hear to identify a Christian rock song in the first few bars, even before lyrics come into play. "Liquid" hopefully inspired a more efficient, economic use of these sounds, doing more with less, never pushing the needles into the red, but still packing a punch when it counts. When all the elements come together exactly thirty seconds into the song, it's a beautiful moment.

I've bought more Christian rock CDs than I care to remember, even into college. They've all been sold/given away by now, all but the first two Jars of Clay albums, which sit between Skip James and J-Live on my CD shelf. None of their later albums interested me very much, as they began to sound more and more like the "Christian Toad the Wet Sprocket" that they've so commonly been described as. By the time "Unforgetful You" hit the airwaves, their muted sound had been polished into bright, shiny, modern rock for "work radio" playlists.

The first album, as much as I always find myself returning to it, isn't without its flaws. The eighteen and a half minutes of string rehearsals and barely-audible studio banter at the end of the album makes for a strong contender for worst "hidden track" ever included at the end of a CD. The sampled children's voices on on "Like a Child" sound inspired by Precious Moments figurines. And the strings, the Celtic arrangements... they pile on thickly over the course of the album. Is this really rock? I know that doesn't matter, but... did they have to play recorders?

So it's good music to fall asleep to, but more than that, listening to it brings me back to a time when I was struggling with simple problems: identity, friendship, belonging, connecting. At least then I was sure that there was something beyond all of this, something bigger than myself that I could appeal and connect to. When you lose God, nothing can ever quite take His place. Believers can never understand this, but neither can atheists. No matter what I know now, or just think that I know, I don't think I'll ever be able to completely let go of those beliefs. They're always there in the back of my mind, always making me believe two things at once. Maybe people just need to believe in God?

Cara married a boy at Bible college and moved to Florida. Ken is about to earn a master's degree in theology from a prestigious Midwestern private college. The pedals on my bicycle were fixed but the brakes soon froze up, and it now hangs from the ceiling in my parents' garage. And Jars of Clay are now busy recording classic hymns, soundtracks, and... a Christmas album. I hope it at least outsells the one from Barenaked Ladies this year.


Leif Garret(t) said...

I used to own an MxPx CD. I couldn't even sell it back to Coconuts. I just sent it to my friend in Detroit along with some Primus CD and a shitty 3rd wave ska revival thing by some band called the Hippos. He was not pleased. I sent him a bunch of other good shit (burned, of course), and he sent me his copy of Painful that he didn't want, so all was well.

Joe said...

I just tried to sell some MXPX away the other week. The store wouldn't take it. Or my copy of the green album. They already had three in the used sections. CDs are becoming the new baseball cards, which I also have way too many of but know that I can't even give away for free anymore, much less hope to get any cash for at all.

Leif Garret(t) said...

Only one solution: fill CD cases with cheese and mail them to Bhickman!