Few bands enter into an album cycle where the musicians sound revitalized and the lyricist has something profound to say and knows how to say it. When such lyrics pair with a musical backdrop that’s both complementary and, within its own right, stunning, the result is an inarguable creative success. Such a serendipitous work of art was crafted by Jars of Clay with the group’s eleventh album, 2013’s Inland.

For those who’ve never listened to Jars of Clay before, Inland is a great place to start–but it’s also worth knowing where the band came from. An eponymous debut hit stores in 1995, eventually being certified 2x Platinum by the RIAA. This success came on the heels of the Billboard Hot 100 hit “Flood,” which fit snugly in the mid-90’s grunge aesthetic established by acts like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. A follow-up in 1997 repeated the formula, going Platinum and earning the band its first Grammy. Beginning with 1999’s If I Left the Zoo, however, the members of Jars of Clay made it clear they had no intention of being pigeonholed into the grunge genre. That third album was the first in a series of genre-hopping releases, no successive album resembling what had come before. Most critics and fans who stuck with the band would admit that these four fellows, the same members since the debut was released, never put out a bad album. Many of those same critics and fans, on the other hand, also believe this one-hit-wonder band hasn’t lived up to or outdone that famed ’95 debut.

Such pundits need to hear Inland, a lyrical continuation of 2009’s The Long Fall Back to Earth while musically coming full circle with Jars of Clay. Indeed, 2013 finds vocalist Dan Haseltine, pianist Charlie Lowell, guitarist/mandolinist Stephen Mason, and guitarist/banjo player Matthew Odmark returning to grunge. This decision might have been influenced by producer Tucker Martine, known for his work with R.E.M. and My Morning Jacket, but this is in no way a reversion. In a move not dissimilar to Thrice’s 2011 album Major/Minor, Inland is exactly what grunge music deserves to sound like in the 2010’s. The set is led by organic instruments such as mandolins, acoustic guitars, organs, and string sections reminiscent of the band’s hit song “Flood.” The electric guitars throughout are utilized with an impressive array of styles and effects, from vocal-accenting lead lines to atmospheric background noises. All of this is displayed in grand fashion by opening track “After the Fight,” with its stark key changes that continue to feel fresh with each listen.

As a good opener should, “After the Fight” also establishes the album’s primary theme. On The Long Fall Back to Earth, Haseltine seemed to find his muse by singing almost exclusively about human relationships. This trend is honed and sharpened on Inland, dealing specifically with domestic disputes and the difficulties of maintaining romantic relationships, all buoyed by striking honesty and keen observations about how relationships have transformed in the digital age. While “Fight” uses a boxing analogy to introduce the topic, and another song references “battle lines,” the lyrics are more often than not very direct–and highly effective. When Haseltine sings lines like, “Behind the door we are unhappy / that’s between you and me,” every word is thoroughly and heartbreakingly believable. The wisdom laced between each word feels hard-earned, as if the band members spent the years leading up to this album actually dealing with heartaches, separations, and arguments that could have ended in divorce, along with the general difficulties of having wives and families while living on the road touring.

As remarkable as the music is, pulling off a balancing act between inventive and subtle, it’s truly the lyrics that elevate Inland to a different level. Each song builds upon the album’s theme without any song falling short and being redundant. Interestingly, this is also Jars of Clay’s most non-religious set, having spent most of its career wrestling with how attached it should be to the “Christian music” label it was initially marketed with. Here, the closest the lyrics get to Christianity are infrequent references to things like “faith” or “rapture,” but the context is utterly relatable, nothing that a non-religious person could bat an eye at: “Faith in available excess / Proof we were destined to care less // It’s life on the wrong side of rapture / Dismiss what we can’t manufacture / Compassion just sounds like complaining / Hit the keys but the notes aren’t sustaining // Look in my eyes, touch my face / We’re limping along in the human race / The sound of your heartbeat is out of place.”

All the imperfections of the album are clearly intentional, from the discordant ending of “Human Race” to the flat note Haseltine sings in the chorus melody of “Fall Asleep.” All complaints that could be made about the album are tangential and inconsequential: for example, the bridge of “Loneliness & Alcohol” is subpar, yet only in comparison to how riveting and perfectly dynamic the rest of the Strokes-reminiscent track is. And while “Skin & Bones” at times sounds like a repeat of The Long Fall‘s “Hero” played at a slower tempo, the song is otherwise Inland‘s feel-good anthem.

Everything about this album, even the track sequencing (and notably the stellar production from Martine and mixing by Jacquire King), bleeds with the passion and vision Jars of Clay clearly had going into this project. It’s not hard to imagine Martine being so inspired by these songs that he was the mind behind brilliant decisions like accenting the somber “Pennsylvania” with eery bursts of violin swells and background noises seemingly recorded in an unstable wooden house. The record truly sounds like the band members poured their everything into making it, yet it’s also inspiring enough to fill them back up. Now might be the time to settle on a sound instead of continuing in the genre-hopping that defined the band in the aughts. It’s nearly hard to believe that a band could only now be hitting its stride, yet that’s exactly what Jars of Clay has accomplished with this career-best record. If any listeners somehow come out on the other side of this 50-minute experience without being either amazed or emotionally devastated, they can at least marvel at these four friends who, in a culture of artists that often make no more than two albums, are two decades into a career, continuing to challenge themselves and improve their craft every step of the way.

5 out of 5 stars