In recording If I Left the Zoo, Jars of Clay's just released album, the band escaped Nashville and spent months in virtual seclusion in Oxford, Mississippi, working with producer Dennis Herring, whose previous credits include Counting Crows. If I Left the Zoo is even more daring than the first two albums, more inventive and more self-confident. Jars of Clay continues to draw on a variety of musical sources—the eclecticism that, paradoxically, has defined the band's uniqueness. Even the most uneducated ear will pick up the country-music sounds of "No One Loves Me Like You" and the rhythm and blues (with a nod toward Motown) in "I'm Alright."

The first several cuts are reminiscent of Sgt. Pepper, with the ebullient Jar boys raiding the sound-effects closet much the way that the Beatles did. Add to that the playful guitar riffs, the falsetto phrases, and the unconventional juxtaposition of accordion and string bass, recalling the use of Gregorian chant from the first album, and you have something that is quintessentially Jars of Clay.

Eclectic, perhaps, but not formulaic. If I Left the Zoo highlights the keyboard work of Charlie Lowell much more than the guitar-driven music of the first two albums. Warren Pettit of Greenville College detects a new maturity in the voices, especially Haseltine's: "The delivery of his singing seems a bit more personal and intimate. Some of the polish has worn off."

Jars of Clay have never shied away from issues like loneliness or depression—witness "Tea and Sympathy" from Much Afraid, a cautionary tale of an extramarital affair. If I Left the Zoo includes several songs on the human condition, with pithy phrases like "my affluent disguise" or "drink a toast to fear," and a meditation on Frederick Buechner's comment that faith is reaching for a hand in the darkness. But the album also includes "Goodbye, Goodnight," which Haseltine describes as "a comical look at the end of the millennium through the eyes of the string players aboard the Titanic."

Once again, as with Much Afraid, the final cut is quiet and reflective. "River Constantine" invokes the Holy Spirit (although, regrettably, the mix allows the music to overwhelm the lyrics) and does not have the elegiac power of "Hymn," the benediction on Much Afraid, but I suspect I'll grow more attached to it as I listen again and again.

Balmer is the author of Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America (Oxford, 1993), Grant Us Courage: Travels Along the Mainline of American Protestantism (Oxford, 1996), and the upcoming Blessed Assurance: A History of Evangelicalism in America (Beacon, 1999).

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