A look at ''Jars of Clay,'' ''Jesus Freak,'' and ''Take Me to Your Leader''

By David Browne
Updated April 12, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

DC Talk are a Lollapalooza unto themselves. The group’s music sometimes recalls the sludgy, cloudy-day scenarios of Alice in Chains or the frat-boy funk and roll of Primus; every so often, a bratty rap — à la Red Hot Chili Peppers — barges in. In fact, DC Talk may be even better than Lollapalooza at reflecting the various shades of alterna-rock — and how formulaic the genre has become.

DC Talk boast several distinctions, however, from the body-piercing paganism of Lollapalooza. The group’s members met while students at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, the DC stands for decent Christian, and their fourth and latest album is called Jesus Freak. Born-again pop isn’t a new trend — see Debby Boone’s ”You Light Up My Life,” the moussed-hair metal of Stryper, and, currently, the hit ballads of Michael W. Smith. DC Talk are simply part of a new generation of Christian bands that are dressing up their messages in the less-than-fancy duds of ’90s rock. Jesus Freak is joined on the current Billboard album chart by such Bible-belting rockers as Jars of Clay and Newsboys, all of whom ask the topical question: If God really were one of us, would He be in the mosh pit?

What’s startling, and in some ways innovative, about this new breed is the deftness with which they integrate their message into the medium. If you’ve heard Jars of Clay’s hit, ”Flood,” on a modern-rock radio station, you may have absently been swept up in its rousing chorus, ”A Horse With No Name” chord changes, and innocuous lyrics (”Lift me up/I need you to hold me”). Only the reference to ”forty days” hints at the song’s religious theme. The same holds true for the band’s new, chart-climbing disc, Jars of Clay. A few of the album’s cuts are overtly worshipful and Christian (”Arms nailed down/Are you tellin’ me something?”), but many of them could double as love songs to women. The songs are all set to tasteful, fervently strummed guitars and mandolins aimed directly at the Dave Matthews and Counting Crows crowd. In other words, they’re earnest but painfully bland and pristine. Even when tackling a somber subject like child abuse (”He”), Jars of Clay could make the Lord nod off.

There are no such ambiguities, no blurry lines between love songs and message numbers, with Newsboys. On Take Me to Your Leader, they castigate couch potatoes for ignoring the coming apocalypse in ”Lost the Plot,” and ”Breakfast” may be the only Christian pop song to mention Froot Loops and Cap’n Crunch and the line ”They don’t serve breakfast in hell.” On half of the album, in songs like ”Breathe” and ”Cup O’ Tea,” Newsboys sell these sentiments with bubble-grunge far catchier than anything by dullards like Collective Soul. The other half, unfortunately, is set to blood-drained synth-pop born of VH1’s The Big ’80s. Had all of Take Me to Your Leader followed the first musical path, it might have been a true milestone: the first alterna-pop Christian album.

DC Talk would seem to have the least integrity of these holy rock & rollers. True opportunists, they presented themselves on 1992’s Free at Last as a three-man Vanilla Ice tribute band, peddling formula dance pop like ”Word 2 the Father.” On the back cover of Jesus Freak, they’re suddenly hirsute and dressed down, as if preparing to convert fans in the parking lot at a Goo Goo Dolls show.

Such shameless shilling is DC Talk’s salvation, however. Hopping on any and every bandwagon on the road to heaven, they give the Godspell sing-along ”Day by Day” a gleeful Van Halen-style pounding, the mumbled ”What if I Stumble?” the Eddie Vedder treatment, and the title track a metallic sandblasting worthy of Living Colour. It’s all done with such craft that even Satan might hum along to lyrics that praise the Lord and ward off feelings of loss of faith.

Still, bands like DC Talk, Jars of Clay, and Newsboys may be underestimating the very audience they’re targeting. ”You’ll never find peace of mind in your rock and roll,” sing DC Talk in Jesus Freak‘s ”Like It, Love It, Need It.” If you’re a death-metal fan, perhaps — but how does one account for the strong sense of spirituality (albeit nondenominational) that imbues the work of chart heavies from Seal and Joan Osborne to Enya and the Benedictine Monks? Compared with these pop stars (and monastery dwellers), the new Christian rock seems oppressive, heavy-handed. Pop fans have already found transcendence in rock, and it’s doubtful that even the Supreme Being would object.
Jars of Clay: C Take Me to Your Leader: B- Jesus Freak: B