If I Left The Zoo (Essential)

Jars Of Clay

By Jim Conway

With the death of Rich Mullins, Jars Of Clay is arguably the most important act in Contemporary Christian music. Notice I said important, not necessarily the most likely to sell a million units of If I Left The Zoo, although they managed that milestone on their 1995 debut CD. Zoo shows an artistic growth from the acoustic / coffeehouse feel of the first album to a more eclectic grab-bag of musical styles, which runs the gamut from the guitar-riffing of "Unforgetful You," to the melancholic cocktail jazz of "Sad Clown."

"Famous Last Words" examines a person who, although believing, is consciously not ready to turn their life over to the Lord. "I'm not ready, yet," sings vocalist Dan Haseltine, who manages to take his limited vocal gift and create an incredible amount of emotional pathos in this tune and others, including "No One Loves Me Like You Do." In fact, Haseltine has such a sense of self-accepting melancholy on this song that it would be hard to imagine the believer or the non-believer being unaffected by the gravitational pull of the message. It simply conveys the awe of the forgiveness he has found, along with the realization that he can fall at any time.

This CD is chock full of acoustic / mandolin / pump organ arrangements, such as the Mellencamp-inspired "Grace," but for my money, the standout track is "Collide," which conveys a looseness not often heard on Christian products. The band members irreverently mock the classical piano signature that introduces the song as they wait to dub their vocals on the first verse. "Collide" rocks like Collective Soul or maybe Live, but without an overbearing sense of urgency to weigh it down.

Finally, there's "Hand," in which Haseltine conveys of being, "so callous laden / I can't feel a thing at all." His lyrical delivery leads the listener to anticipate that he is going to just give up and stop believing, but as the desperation rises, he reveals, "I hear your voice, and follow / so hard to believe, and still I go." Now that's faith. Unlike many other Christian artists, these guys aren't afraid to explore the shadows of doubt in their belief. That may not toe the line of the more mainstream artists, but I have to ask: how many Christian artists write from the point of view of those whose faith waivers with the nilisim we witness in our fellow man? Not that many, and certainly nobody in current rotation of Contemporary Christian Radio. Arguably, only Jars Of Clay.