The song “Sad Clown” by the US band Jars of Clay seems to pick up on some of the themes and ideas in my recent book review of When People Are Big and God is Small. It highlights how we feel we have to perform for others and how we think we deserve other people’s attention and care because of that. The singer cries mournfully, “I put on this hat, I wore all this paint -just for you.”
As the song progresses it is clear that the character in the song knows someone who sees through his performance (singing “you break me open”), some person or love who exposes him uncomfortably to his own self-centredness. He is being controlled by thoughts about this Someone or about others, wondering: “Do I preoccupy you – with my wit – to cover this lie? Are you mesmerised? Do you think me faithful? Do you think I’m a clown?” Why is he paranoid about his faithfulness? Is he afraid he will not measure up to the standard?
I think the implication in the repeated refrain that “you break me open” is that God is the one who ultimately exposes him, because he sees him through and through, past every pretence. But perhaps, at the end of the day, the singer is inviting God to “stumble inside” with him. Some have suggested that the singer poses the question of what God thinks of our performance – He thinks we are being clowns when we strive to do religious things as if these things are pleasing or entertaining to Him. Could the song be hinting at the crushing truth that God is not impressed with our efforts? And that we need to see the shallowness of our performance, and accept how we can not earn God’s favour? Where is the answer? Can we come bare and empty to God to know and experience His passionate love for us? Is this in fact the only honest and true way to come to God at all?
The lyrics for many of the songs are left vague (perhaps too vague) and I don’t presume to know if this is the intended meaning, but I think it’s heading in the right direction.
If you don’t know the band, I’d invite you to get hold of the album “Sad Clown” is from: If I Left The Zoo. It’s not their best – that accolade probably goes to their funky and varied 2006 rock/pop album Good Monsters or their self-titled first album (from 1995), which has a more experimental folk rock feel. Having said all this If I Left The Zoo does have some great tracks including the hit “Crazy Times”, a personal favourite. Their sound is quite varied but it usually combines thoughtful and poetic lyrics with guitar-led music, which can produce anything from upbeat jangly pop (“Grace” or “Work”), to more raw and sombre songs (“Needful Hands” or “Oh My God”). I look forward to checking out their next projects.