The most meaningful lyrics in my life – the ones that constantly ring in my head day after day – come from this album. Not even main lyrics, even, but background vocals from the song “Headphones,” sung beautifully by Grammy-nominated folk artist Katie Herzig.
I don’t wanna be the one who /
tries to figure it out. /
I don’t need another reason I should care about you. /
You don’t wanna know my story. /
You don’t wanna own my pain. /
And even in this heavy, heavy world /
There’s a pop song in my head.
Introduction (Lesson One)
Welcome to my retrospective of The Long Fall Back to Earth by Jars of Clay, one of the most meaningful albums in my life. My hope is that you’ll see the thematic genius behind this album by the end, but I’m optimistic at least that you’ll be able to feel the emotions I feel vicariously through me. I’ll be discussing a lot of very human occurrences in this piece, and these are things I think we all can relate with.
I’ve embedded the album above from Spotify. Please, feel free to listen along.
I want to get this out of the way from the top. This album is from a Christian band, one of the most famous. Wait! Please don’t run. This record may have Christian symbolism all over its run time, but it directly references God and/or Jesus exactly…
Hold on let me count.
Ah, zero times.
This is unprecedented as, as far as I’m concerned, this is the only Jars of Clay album to go out of its way to completely avoid religious references. No, this is in the same vane as Flyleaf, Anberlin, and Switchfoot, though even those bands weren’t shy about their belief system. Not coincidentally, I would like to focus more on the human, emotional themes of the album, far more than the spiritual.
The Long Fall Back to Earth is not a spiritual album – it says so right in its title. It’s a human one. So, what kind of musical genres can you expect? Well, it’s alternative for sure. Jars of Clay is a relatively old band, having its roots in the alternative movement of the early nineties which inspired bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. This 2009 LP also takes inspiration from pop music, both of the modern and 80’s kind. In fact, I’d like to think this album is in part responsible for the 80’s-style tinged sounds so prevalent in pop music of this decade. Musically, The Long Fall is top notch in any genre. The more you play it, the better it gets.
As the album asks of the listener from the top: “Lay your weapons down. / There are no enemies in front of you.” I too ask the same of you.
Life After the Mountain (Lesson Two)
Key songs: “Two Hands,” “Hero,” “Heaven”
This record has many themes – that is, human concepts which are repetitive throughout a work. They’re far more present than your typical collection of songs, and the artists somehow manage to squeeze them in without sacrificing continuity. See the key songs for tracks prominently displaying each section’s themes.
What’s crazy is that interpretations display themselves in whatever form the listener manifests in their own life. Most of us will interpret these songs in the context of romantic love. And indeed, this thing works as a brooding love album better than almost anything on the market. But then you look deeper into the lyrics and you realize exactly none of these have to be love songs.
“Weapons” could be a song about getting a love interest to let his or her guard down long enough to consider a relationship. But it could also be a commentary on masculinity and how it prevents people, especially men, from opening up enough to let out their emotions. About the only song that seems exclusively romantic is “Closer,” a surprisingly intimate song about the paradox that the closer you get to a lover, the further away you seem. And even then, I’m not entirely sure the song isn’t a commentary about Jars of Clay’s mission work in Africa with the Blood:Water Mission.
The point is, no matter what song your listening to, it probably has at least ten valid interpretations. And yet one, slightly more pervasive theme seems to exist throughout. It’s subtle, but it seems to be that of coming down after an intense high.
Christians will be tempted to interpret that fall back to earth as an intense spiritual high. That’s probably why the song “Two Hands” became a big CCM mega-hit despite not being about worship in any way. Heightened spiritual experiences often happen after going to a particularly rousing religious or worship event, or getting saved, or experiencing unexplainable healing. If that’s the case, this album is about the practical faith which must accompany the experience afterwards in order for it to be “real.” The song “Hero” favors this interpretation, especially the part about being “in shock from the failed emotion.”
However, falling in love is an equally viable – in fact, likely – interpretation of the artists intentions. In this case, falling in love entails falling back to earth, and that will result in one of two things. Either you will pick yourself up from the ground and learn to live and love in harmony, or you will crash and burn and destroy all of the good core elements surrounding you. The album’s closing song, “Heart,” is this interpretation’s swan song, indicating that action is required no matter how in love two people are.
I am far, far, in the falling in love camp. This album is my go-to love album, especially after hard times.
Either way, life after a mountaintop experience is hard, and it requires practicality and planning and an extremely determined emotional resolve. I, an highly optimistic person, would like to think I’m learning to temper my exuberance with a fair dose of strategy for the future.
Anticipation and Disappointment (Lesson Three)
Key songs: “Scenic Route,” “There Might Be a Light,” “Closer,” “Don’t Stop”
If mountaintop experiences are the setting the album builds, then anticipation and disappointment are the two driving forces used to get us here. Take the song “Scenic Route” as a musical piece. It starts out quiet… too quiet. So quiet that, after the ornery loudness of the song before it, you’d swear your music player stopped working or your headphones just came halfway out of the slot. Slowly the music builds, and with it the hopefulness of the lyrics.
You can envision two friends on a long drive, flirting and getting to know each other. It takes you back to a time where the chemicals of new love flowed abundantly, because “We’re just sitting like novels we’ve picked up but never read through. / You think you know my ending. I think I know your’s too.”
Unfortunately life gets in the way and the song ends in a depressive note. This story is nothing new for the album, as similar examples can be found time and again. With a presumably married but separated couple in “Safe to Land.” With an unknown lover in the should-have-been-a-hit track “Don’t Stop.” With a years-long fight in “Forgive Me.”
By far the most direct example is “There Might Be a Light,” which is very classical poet-at-your-door style song. Oddly enough, despite all of the imagery, it demonstrates the most patient of all the perspectives. The poet knows with faith that, one day, the type of love he’s looking for will come through. This song is meaningful to me because I went through a similar experience, feeling a peace and just knowing that one day I’d be with the person I love.
The most important lessons to learn, then, are to always stay patient, always have a short memory of disappointment, always learn from mistakes, and never take defeat personally.
Love Takes Lots of Work (Lesson Four)
Key songs: “Safe to Land,” “Headphones,” “Forgive Me”
One of the things Jars of Clay has never shied away from, not once, is their belief that hard work wins the day. This is uniquely demonstrated by their push towards activism for people in third world countries with AIDS or without access to clean drinking water.
But hard work also applies to personal relationships – strongly so, and without recognition or reward. Quite simply, love is hard work. Falling in love is hard, developing a relationship is difficult, opening yourself up for potential heartbreak is challenging, and staying in love despite challenging marriage obstacles is particularly difficult.
This is wonderfully demonstrated in “Safe to Land,” perhaps the most moving track on the album. It is, I feel, a misinterpretation to say this is a road song like Journey’s “Faithfully,” because great marriage can survive the busyness of life. Instead, I think this is a broken man finally realizing he’s gone off the rails with his wife, desperately seeking reparation for his apathy. It’s safe to say he’s got a lot of work to do. “I’m not giving up,” he says. “I’m gonna stay, till we make it work. / We’re not going down even if it gets worse.”
And yet, paradoxically, the work itself is worth it. The fight – through health issues, mental illness, job insecurities, and yes even conflict – brings two people into a more trusting relationship than an outsider would think possible. The message, then, is simple. Never shy away from hard work, especially in love. Doing so leads to a relationship where you never tire of being around each other. That’s an objective I’ve held from the day I met Nikki, and I’m not going to stop now.
All We Have is Each Other (Lesson Five)
Key songs: “Boys (Lesson One),” “Weapons,” “Heart”
Very few albums will capture the same emotions as this one for me. Sometimes I’ll lay in bed with my headphones on when I can’t sleep and just go through each track exploring the emotions it presents.
It reminds me that there are very few relationships in life worth holding on to, and that I should value those. This isn’t always romantic. “Boys (Lesson One)” is a heartfelt letter from the lead singer to his children. “Headphones” and “Two Hands” are about a person’s goal to love society at large.
And so the message for me is simple. Don’t give up on living people, whether that’s parents, friends, coworkers, and especially don’t give up on your husband or wife. Treat everyday with optimism, despite the pain and hard work that inevitably comes with life. And never stop being patient, because you’ll get there – to your happiness or job you want or place you want to live – in time.
Concluding Thoughts (Lesson Six)
So, yes, I think it’s pretty obvious that I give The Long Fall Back to Earth by Jars of Clay my highest recommendation.
Favorite Song: All of them! But, it that’s not an option, it’s got to be “Heart.” Not only is it a weird musical anomaly, but it’s also one of mine and Nikki’s songs. We wanted the D.J. to play it at our wedding, but he had other plans. My wife also gave me a watch engraved with lyrics from the song for my birthday.
Lease favorite song: Well, it used to be “Scenic Route” when I was younger, but what was I thinking? That’s one of the best songs on the record. I’m going to have to go with “Hero,” because to me it just goes on a little too long and is just a little too poppy for me.
That said, the three bonus tracks that come with the deluxe edition are just… not that good. Some of Jars of Clay’s worst work, honestly. I’m glad they got cut, but why release them at all? However, the three remixes by Jeff Savage are just incredible, especially for the song “Headphones.”
You can find the record on Amazon, and presumably any music store that still sells CDs. It’s also on Spotify for you to listen to at any time.
Thank you for exploring this amazing album with me. Now it’s your turn! What is your go-to album for emotional exploration? Do you have a favorite that you think I should be listening to? Let me know in the comments!