The great thing about Jars of Clay is that you never know what they're going to do next. Virtually redefining themselves with every record, you never get the same thing twice from these guys. That tennet holds true once again on Who We Are Instead, the group's latest offering.
No matter what version of Jars you may have loved in the past, I'm not sure anyone could have anticipated that one day they'd end up where they land on this album. The late Johnny Cash was in the midst of his "Hurt" heyday while this album was being recorded, and frontman Dan Haseltine says that the qualities that made Cash's music timeless and affective were foremost on his mind while the band was writing these songs. It shows.
Who We Are Instead once again puts Jars at the production helm, this time with help from Mitch Dane, along with Ron Aniello, who produced a few tracks solo. Sounding virtually nothing like the group's past work, these thirteen tracks mix blues, laid-back acoustic, light roots rock, and even hints of country and bluegrass into something that's altogether surprising. You'll hear lots of steel guitars and slow, moody songs. There are higher-energy moments, and it's here that the guys come closest to sounding familiar to their fans, such as "Sunny Days" and "Show You Love." But the rest of the disc is nearly a complete departure. The standout track is undoubtedly the striking ballad "Amazing Grace" (a new song, not the hymn), which features guest vocals by Ashley Cleveland. Also listen for a lovely rendition of "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet."
Lyrically, the group continues to grapple with the difficult questions, and trying to reason out life, God, salvation, and pretty much everything else. Fans will recognize these lyrics and the way they are written as consistent with Jars' past stuff.
I think this is one of those albums you're going to completely love or completely hate. From an artistic standpoint, I adore Jars for constantly trying new things and never being afraid to follow its instincts. In this case, it's led them into highly creative new territory. On a more personal level, Who We Are Instead probably won't be getting as much repeat play in my stereo as some of the group's past work because the blues/country thing doesn't do anything for me.