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SealOfServants

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Reply with quote  #1 
I've been meaning to get around to this for months. I'm hoping to do a thread looking back on each of Jars' major releases before Inland comes out. I did a thread on their debut months ago, and this is the thread for Much Afraid. Feel free to chime in!

When Jars of Clay sat down to interview Stephen Lipson for production of their second album, they asked him how he would go about producing a particular song. Lipson’s only reply was, "I don't know. I guess we'll just go to the studio and panic together."

That pretty much sets the tone for the period in which Jars of Clay recorded Much Afraid. This album was written during perhaps the most crucial period in their career. Coming off the unprecedented meteoric rise of their debut album, and having signed a deal with Provident Records for wider distribution, there was a pressure from all sides to make lightning strike again. It would have been easy to play it safe and that seems to have been Jars’ original intent. Listening to the hitherto unreleased live version of “Blame”  that Jars wrote shortly before work on their second record, we get a sense of the direction that Jars was initially headed for their sophomore effort: the tried and true formula of driven acoustic guitars and heavy pulsing drums.

At some point in the incipient stages of writing for the new album, Steve Mason expressed a desire to incorporate electric guitars into the songwriting and Dan resisted. “That’s not the Jars of Clay sound,” Dan argued. But in the end, Steve’s drive for diversity won out and that set the tone for the new creative direction, as we begin to hear on their 1996 rendition of “Rose Colored Stained Glass Windows.”

During this incredibly bright, but unceasingly busy period of non-stop touring (300+ shows in 1996 alone) and working on additional side projects like producing Plumb’s debut album, Dan fell into a debilitating depression set on from a combination of stress, unhealthy eating habits, and perhaps other issues we’ll never know about. Dan suffered from panic attacks, withdrew into his apartment where he said he was deathly afraid of even a phone call, and the other band members didn’t have a clue what was going on.

This intense struggle heavily influenced the type of writing that came out of Jars of Clay during this time. Much Afraid feels incubated, like it's coming from a sad and lonely place. Where the debut album has a tendency to declare a message, Much Afraid reflects on a moment, offering some of the most beautiful and poignant lyrics that Jars has written to date. “Tea and Sympathy” is a wonderful example of the lyrical depth on Much Afraid. This is a post-love song. Sweeping, archetypal images of love flash before us—a symphony, a castle, a woman in a tower waiting to be rescued, victory songs—but we’re watching the end of these things.

Shifting from these thematic scenes, we now see a man and a woman sitting in a café sipping their teacups. This simple object in their hands becomes a vessel to convey the tragic beauty of their broken relationship in all its sweetness, bitterness, and fragility. The music so perfectly expresses what this couple is feeling; I can never listen to this song without the most distinct impression of these people coming to mind. Dan has expressly stated that he wrote this song thinking about a couple who have been ravaged by an extra-marital affair. Yet even without knowing that, you feel the longing, the angst, the regret in the very music itself even without knowing exactly what these people are going through.

“Fare thee well”/ The words, the bag of leaves that fill my head/ I could taste bitterness and call the waitress instead/ Cause she holds the answer/ Smiles and asks, “One teaspoon or two?”

The external world surrounding this couple embodies their internal struggle. The idea of ending their relationship is like a “bag of [tea] leaves” filling the head of the betrayed partner with bitterness. And how easy would it be to simply give in to this bitterness and come back to this same café with a close friend for “tea and sympathy” rather than work through this relationship? Sugar, without even being named, becomes a symbol for withdrawal, for medication, for resignation—the easy way out. The entire controlling metaphor of tea in this song is so profound in its simplicity.

This is by far the most poetical album Jars has ever put out. Examples abound to the point I could pick a song at random and point to a line displaying tremendous artistic sensitivity. More than any other of Jars albums, this one is beautiful. It’s not as easily accessible as the first, but far more rewarding over time. I’m always finding something in it I didn’t notice before, whether the meaning of a lyric, or an instrument in the background, or even the way it’s mixed and produced.

One prominent change from the first album is Dan’s vocals. New listeners would not even realize this was the same person singing. If I remember correctly, Dan suffered vocal damage during his first year and also took voice lessons, which changed the tone of his vocals. In one way, he’s much better, though far more restrained. Even moments where he’s belting out (“Crazy Times,” “Portrait of an Apology”) he sounds far more controlled, reserved, at times even less authentic than on the first album. However, if you listen to him singing live during the period if 1995-1996, you can definitely tell how much he had genuinely improved after that period.

Sonically, this album ventures into new territory with the orchestral arrangements. Not that the debut didn’t use strings. But they weren’t nearly as pervasive as they are on Much Afraid. The orchestra gives a classical feel to this entire album, eliciting a sense of time out of mind. The soaring background vocals in songs like “Five Candles” evoke a feeling of ethereal space, like daydreaming in an open field. 

The choice of instrumentation drastically altered the overall sound of the album. Whereas the debut album relied heavily on drum loops, this album incorporates live drums, the variety of which better suits the moody ebb and flow of the music. For the faster songs (e.g. Truce), they slip in some loops to incorporate that steady pulse that drives the song forward.

The electric guitar allowed Jars to experiment with a range of sounds, offering more variety than their debut. If they had gone with Dan’s original suggestion to use only acoustics, they would found themselves limited and probably would have drifted back toward the sound of the first album. Whereas the acoustics feature prominently and conspicuously on the first album, the electric guitar on Much Afraid enhances and blends in with the overall sonic atmosphere. “Portrait of an Apology” has some pretty crunchy, distorted electric guitar around the second chorus, heightening the intensity of the music. But you wouldn’t even notice if you weren’t looking for it.

When Jars of Clay finally set out to write Much Afraid, their intent was to make a record styled in such a way that you could listen to in ten years and feel that it hadn’t aged. Here we are 15 years later and I think they’ve accomplished just that. They didn’t take the easy route of regurgitating the same style of album as their debut. With a foresight rare among young successful artists, they derailed the train and started on course in a completely different direction. It put off many of their initial fans, but drew attention from people who would turn out to be long-term fans interested in art that transcends the flash-in-the-pan popularity of current pop music.

This new direction seemed like a bad idea to everyone else at the time. But nearly 20 years after Jars of Clay’s inception, it's become clear that this type of innovation is what kept their core fanbase interested, allowing Jars to move steadily onward through three decades.

--Derek

MonicaBahaa

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Reply with quote  #2 
Since I cannot offer such an insightful and informative review as yours, Derek, I will try my best to go over the album and then analyze each song according to my humble point of view.
Here we go,
The album has its special place up there in my top 3 all time favorite Jars albums. I am fairly new to JoC (only been a fan for a little over a year), so I got exposed to all their music in a very short period of time. So, instead of living their progress and musical diversity over time, I lived it over emotional context. I'm a teenager and my taste in music never stays the same for more than 3 months, I like to experiment with different genres and sounds, and my beloved Jars have offered me just this.
This album is the one I turn to when I'm feeling sad or depressed, it has this magical soothing feel, almost comforting with Dan's soft vocals. It also tells me that someone's been where I've been before. Songs like "Portrait of An Apology" and "Hymn" never cease to put me in the zone when I feel down and blue. I don't really know why but sometimes if I'm all happy and bubbly and listening to my music on shuffle, when one of these songs comes along, I have to skip!
Now, I'll go over each song with a quick review,

"Overjoyed"
Nice song, not exactly the highlight of the album. I didn't quite understand what it was all about before I read Dan's "revisiting" blog about it, but then I liked the idea of the lyrical content. And musically, my favorite part is the jazzy instrumental part right after the bridge, singing along to it is always nice.

"Fade to Grey"
Awesome. Just plain and pure awesome. This song has stood the test of time beautifully! I even listened to the original version on the "Frail" demo, with all its quirkiness and distorted overlain sound, it was just this...awesome. I might even dare to say both versions are equal to me if I had to pick a favorite. The one on this album after all the sculpting and polishing is a masterpiece of pop music. The building of sound by adding instruments just made it. Let's just say it always ends too soon for me.

"Tea and Sympathy"
The melancholy of lost love captured in this scenic moment. Call me a softie but it had me bawling many times before, and I guess it will have me bawling many times to come. The pleading lyrics don't trade our love for tea and sympathy are just heartbreaking! I may have never suffered an actual break up or heartbreak that terrible, however the song conveys the emotion so vividly I can't but share the characters their feelings. Music wise it's very rich, also following the instrumental build up theme. I love it, but I avoid it when I'm just not willing to cry.

"Crazy Times"
Following the lead of Fade to Grey, this song is kinda upbeat with lyrics to match. One of my absolute favorites from Jars. The music is fresh and the electric guitar driven sound is well done, with the final interlude before the chorus being all riffy and huge then the sole acoustic guitar starts and takes us back to the chorus, then after the chorus is done it takes us home. It's always a good listen.
And I can't just ignore the fact that the music video is just so cool with all that random stuff happening.

"Frail"
I can't find the right word to describe it, I thought of epic but it just doesn't do it justice, so I'll just keep blabbing around it.
Stephen Mason is a genius. Period. I know I'm being all fangirly here, but the instrumental is just so good! And to know he has written it alone, at the age of like 18 or something just makes it all more awesome. Even the great Dan Haseltine was afraid to add lyrics to it in the thought that he might have ruined it! But he didn't, eventually, he just enhanced it and refined it, giving it shape and bringing it to life. I can sing along to every instrument on this 7 minute song and I'm not afraid to claim my bragging rights, lol!

"Five Candles"
Good song, it just doesn't belong here. The first time I listened to it I thought, "Why the heck isn't it on If I Left The Zoo?" To me it belongs there more than here, especially not after Frail! It's not appreciated enough because of its awkward placement in between two slow songs to "brighten up the mood". It's a good song, I can relate to it sometimes. It's just not their best effort.

"Weighed Down"
I know where I heard this before, lol. Way to salvage the instrumental pieces (and the hidden track 4:7) from the self titled, Jars of Clay! This is another great song to me, not just because of the music, but because of the very undermined lyrics: Love lies here waiting all alone/Can a king be a king weighed down? And the very famous: Our hearts, a bubble maker's dream/moved on by winds of everything/as we deny that love is still the king/not as weak as we make it out to be. Come on, guys! Isn't that some kind of lyrical genius?

"Portrait of An Apology"
The song is just the epitome of beautiful sorrow. Feeling so weak and lost that you just don't know how your heart has come to look like this. It's another song not given enough credit for all its beauty. I just can't count how many times it made me cry when I hit rock bottom, or how many times it saved me from hitting there. I'm thankful we have people still willing and daring to share their inward thoughts and emotions with the world in such an artistic way, so that poor people like me can find a way to express their feelings when words can't articulate enough of what's held inside. *Sigh*

"Truce"
I still do not understand lyrics of this song. Sad but true, I know. I think it's about finding inner peace by reconciling our true selves with what we aim to be and what God wants us to be, making a "Truce" in the process. But hey, the music is awesome, and that was enough for it to become a regular listen to me, then I might get a glimpse of where all the lyrical elements meet, I mean: Enchanted by the face of peace and when it turns to sunken eyes and waterfalls/Dissatisfied by simple things, entangled in the cords, I can't take any calls...really? I give up!

"Much Afraid"
Straightforward, honest, beautiful hymn like prayer. It's been a favorite of mine from the first listen and I guess it will always be. It's coming from a deep place, really willing to submit to God's sovereign grace and mercy. Musically it's an easy listen, with a sweet melody and great harmony from the Jars, as always.

"Hymn"
Like Much Afraid, it's a very spiritually based song, using language found in an actual olden days hymn (bottom line, I had to look up A LOT of words) It has a very soothing melody, so I tend to listen to it when I suffer insomnia and it puts me to a good night's sleep just like a lullaby. Beautiful song.

Phew, that was LONG! I am absolutely not a professional, and I tend to always be biased towards the guys. It's just that their music always finds a way to fit in during my emotional instability seasons. I might look back on this "review" in the future and laugh, but I guess that's how growing up works.

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clayhazelnut

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Reply with quote  #3 
This is still my favorite Jars record. It really has aged remarkably well.
datraceman

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Reply with quote  #4 
I am a long time Jars fan. I was 12 when the Self Titled album came out and I've been a fan ever since. 

In my 14 year old haze, I remember not liking this album as much compared to the self-titled record. 

As a 30 year old man, I connect to this album more than ever. A while back, I was able to track down a still sealed vinyl copy and it has been in regular rotation since. I've had the CD since 1997 but trust me, vinyl is the way to listen to Much Afraid.

There is so much going on instrumentally and lyrically that the lack of compression really helps bring out the fullness of all the different parts creating the whole. 

Having dealt with depression at different points in life, I can feel the loneliness and pain even in the more "upbeat" songs. 

Smartly, Jars closed the record with the title track and the uplifting hymn. Doing so gave a sense of hope but also not closing the conversation. Yes, depression and angst are real emotions and going on the journey doesn't instantly cure us. Rather, all of these things we held up in vain are beyond reason or rhyme and we will hold on to our sweet Jesus as our refuge. 

It leaves a sense of hope, but not closure. 

The more I think about it, Much Afraid may be their masterpiece. I love all the Jars records but I think a lot more of my identity is tied up in the themes of this record.
haveapez

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Reply with quote  #5 
This is still one of my favorite records of the band.  I, like many were disappointed at first at it not sounding more like their debut.  But looking back, if they had repackaged the debut three times, would I have followed them as closely album to album as I do now?  It's hard to say.  One thing about Jars is that they rarely do the same album two times in a row, so it keeps a hard core fan guessing and listening.

A heavy dose of nostalgia with this album.  I remember it being fall of my freshman year in college.  Such a time of change for me.  The album has a heavy dose of melancholy, which I often like in my music.

Not a lot of "hits," but a good feeling to the album. 

Of course, as soon as I warmed up to this album, they released what I thought was a career killer, IILTZ.  But I grew to love that one, and that's a thought for another thread.
RebChan

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Reply with quote  #6 
This is still my favorite album and the one that I can relate to the most. It is also my typical "go-to" Jars album, unless I am wanting something else specific. The whole album has helped me through some of my bad lows of the past eleven years. (Has it really been that long ago that I was introduced to Jars?)
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WeighedDown

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Reply with quote  #7 
I became a fan right after Flood hit the radio, so this was my first experience really anticipating a new album coming out - my dad took me to buy it from the Christian bookstore the day it came out. I brought it home and listened to it as I read through the album notes, line by line.

Nostalgia indeed!
Libby

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Reply with quote  #8 
Great analysis, Derek. I know I'm getting in on this one late, but have you ever listened to the song Frail, with the volume turned up, when you're alone somewhere, with your eyes closed? If not, try it. It's a memorable experience.

Libby

haveapez

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Reply with quote  #9 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Libby
Great analysis, Derek. I know I'm getting in on this one late, but have you ever listened to the song Frail, with the volume turned up, when you're alone somewhere, with your eyes closed? If not, try it. It's a memorable experience.

Libby



I would be curious to know just how many times I've listened to this song over the years.  Hundreds and hundreds of times.  Maybe over a thousand by this point.  It's an amazing and wonderful thing to find a song where the melody just speaks to you that much...whether it's a melody that's happy, sad, haunting, etc.  I have over 21,000 songs on my amazon cloud, but just a handful have a melody that can speak to me like that one.

Ok, that's about about as pretentious as I get, and now I'm done.
murlough23

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Reply with quote  #10 
This is my all-time favorite Jars album - actually my favorite album of the 1990s, period. And I have a lot more thoughts to offer on it later, when I'm not supposed to be working.

But for now, I'll just say: Bag of leaves??!?!?! Holy mondegreen, Batman! All these years, I've been singing "These words the beggar leaves that fill my head."

Then again, I remember how look it took me to start singing "Thrashing waves" instead of "Crashing waves", so I guess I'm just plain not paying attention.

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DISCLAIMER: The preceding post was a statement of opinion, and does not reflect the views of the members of Jars of Clay, the moderators of Jarchives, or any member of the Holy Trinity. In fact, it is only my opinion that this is my opinion. In my opinion, you may choose to believe that my opinion is fact, if in fact you are of the opinion that you are allowed to choose what you believe, which presupposes the opinion that you do in fact exist in the first place - in my humble opinion, of course. It is my opinion that all of my opinions are humble opinions, but this does not indicate a bias on my part against opinions which are, in my opinion, proud opinions.
murlough23

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Reply with quote  #11 
One other thought that I had to share before it slipped away from me - going through this thread and seeing how a few of you have responded that this album has helped you through dark times, it really warms my heart. I'm so used to having to defend this album when others call it "depressing" or find other reasons why, for them, it doesn't live up to the grandeur of the self-titled album. I've always known there were lots of folks on Jarchives who "got it", with this album and with other underappreciated gems in the band's discography. But it's nice to see it spelled out specifically.

Personally, I'd been through my first real bout with depression about half a year before this album came out, so looking back, I can see why I related to it so much. The funny thing is, I identified a lot of it as being about hardships like going through breakups, or parental abandonment, or conflicts with people, or whatever, but I never specifically realized some of it was about depression. Maybe on some subconscious level it helped me to realize "being depressed doesn't make you a bad Christian, because here's this other person you really look up to who is struggling with it, too", but it wasn't until years later that I consciously identified that thought.

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DISCLAIMER: The preceding post was a statement of opinion, and does not reflect the views of the members of Jars of Clay, the moderators of Jarchives, or any member of the Holy Trinity. In fact, it is only my opinion that this is my opinion. In my opinion, you may choose to believe that my opinion is fact, if in fact you are of the opinion that you are allowed to choose what you believe, which presupposes the opinion that you do in fact exist in the first place - in my humble opinion, of course. It is my opinion that all of my opinions are humble opinions, but this does not indicate a bias on my part against opinions which are, in my opinion, proud opinions.
romelB

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Reply with quote  #12 
Ambitious is my word for this album. It's my favorite album when I was in college. I was really into artsy stuff back then (college ) and the lyrics are just poetic, they make you think in a way. So I was drawn to the album.

Now that we have Loneliness and Alcohol, it's fun to listen to Tea and Sympathy again. It makes me laugh. The last time I listened to it the album, it made me re-evaluate things. Now that I'm independent and pretty much living on my own, it reminded me of the days when I was clueless and I always needed someone. I'm actually still the same frail person constantly in need of grace.

Ok I'm getting really personal. You go talk about the music.
murlough23

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Reply with quote  #13 
Quote:
Originally Posted by romelB
Now that we have Loneliness and Alcohol, it's fun to listen to Tea and Sympathy again.


I never thought to connect the two, but now that you bring it up, I'm thinking back to the band's intro for "The Coffee Song" on Stringtown. Now they have another beverage song!

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DISCLAIMER: The preceding post was a statement of opinion, and does not reflect the views of the members of Jars of Clay, the moderators of Jarchives, or any member of the Holy Trinity. In fact, it is only my opinion that this is my opinion. In my opinion, you may choose to believe that my opinion is fact, if in fact you are of the opinion that you are allowed to choose what you believe, which presupposes the opinion that you do in fact exist in the first place - in my humble opinion, of course. It is my opinion that all of my opinions are humble opinions, but this does not indicate a bias on my part against opinions which are, in my opinion, proud opinions.
haveapez

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Reply with quote  #14 
I think it was on the iTunes Originals interview that Dan said, and I'm paraphrasing, "We wondered why Christian music doesn't sound like other music on the radio. We just wanted to make a good, timeless record that sounded just as good ten years from now."

I think they definitely succeeded in that area.  The album has aged very well.
murlough23

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Reply with quote  #15 
Quote:
Originally Posted by haveapez
I think it was on the iTunes Originals interview that Dan said, and I'm paraphrasing, "We wondered why Christian music doesn't sound like other music on the radio. We just wanted to make a good, timeless record that sounded just as good ten years from now."

I think they definitely succeeded in that area.  The album has aged very well.


Indeed. Ironic that mainstream radio hardly touched that album.

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DISCLAIMER: The preceding post was a statement of opinion, and does not reflect the views of the members of Jars of Clay, the moderators of Jarchives, or any member of the Holy Trinity. In fact, it is only my opinion that this is my opinion. In my opinion, you may choose to believe that my opinion is fact, if in fact you are of the opinion that you are allowed to choose what you believe, which presupposes the opinion that you do in fact exist in the first place - in my humble opinion, of course. It is my opinion that all of my opinions are humble opinions, but this does not indicate a bias on my part against opinions which are, in my opinion, proud opinions.
wasp

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Reply with quote  #16 
with the disclaimer that I haven't heard a lot of the more recent records, this was always my favorite Jars of Clay record. they found a subtle but also varied and unique sound and thematically it felt very cogent to me.
trigger

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Reply with quote  #17 

Much Afraid holds a funny spot in Jars' discography for me. It's an album I don't think about often when my internal monologue says "I want to listen to some Jars of Clay right now", but it's easily in my top three albums. It's kind of like finding twenty dollars in a coat you haven't worn for a year.

The first CD I'd ever owned was the self titled album, a Christmas gift from my dad. But I was late to the game, because this was Christmas 1996. We didn't listen to Christian radio much, but I'd heard Flood a million times. Owning music that I could play back any time I wanted was a brand new concept to me, and I taxed my parents living room stereo playing the disc on repeat nearly every waking moment.

The following summer I turned 13, and I got a job picking blueberries. They paid by the bucket, and I figured out that I could pick enough buckets in four hours to buy two CDs a day. My library grew quickly. I picked up copies of The Cranberries To The Faithful Departed, Weezer's Pinkerton and The Blue Album, Belle and Sebastian's Tigermilk, and a dozen others that have had less staying power. I played many of those albums over and over again, but the one I always came back to was Jars of Clay

When I heard that Jars were releasing a new album, I was ecstatic! I remember getting my mom to drive me to Sam Goody (there's a throwback), on the day it was released. School had started back up, but I'd socked away (literally in my sock drawer) blueberry money in anticipation. Our car didn't have a CD player, so I had to wait until we got home to listen, but I'd ripped off the plastic wrap and started looking at the liner notes and pictures inside the booklet.

I remember the feeling of disappointment when I began listening... This wasn't what I was expecting. It was so melancholy. Crazy Times stuck out to me as a good track, possibly because of it's familiarity to my 13 year old brain after it's fair bit of airplay, but the disc failed to make a foothold in my rotation. I just wasn't ready for it. 

A few years later, I was getting ready to purge some of my music collection. It had grown a little unwieldily, and I figured I could sell a bunch of my music to a local resale shop. I pulled out a couple dozen discs, and Much Afraid was in the bunch. I figured that the fair thing to do was give each one a listen before committing them to the grave. I felt pretty secure in my choices as I made my way through them, with little hesitation in parting with them.

Out of the twenty or so discs to go into the tower of rejects that day, Much Afraid was the lone survivor.

As I listened to each track, I found myself relating to the sense of longing, regret, and hope that the lyrics conveyed. As I was approaching my 17th birthday, I'd found myself more and more struggling and wrestling in my faith, relationships, and my own identity. In just a short period of time, Much Afraid went from being the most unappreciated disc in my collection to being the soundtrack of my life. "Tea and Sympathy" saw me through the dissolving of my first real relationship; "Much Afraid" helped me deal with the guilt and shame I felt over private and personal sin; and the album as a whole helped me to understand that I wasn't responsible for bridging the gap between God and myself, that God had already taken care of that.

As I've grown older, Much Afraid continues to unfold itself, both lyrically and sonically. I have no doubt that I'll appreciate it even more at 80 than I do at 32.

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