Derek Webb

Derek Webb's Official Website

By Brad East

WHEN: 1993-2003 (Caedmon’s Call), 2003-present (solo)

CULPRITS: Derek Webb, Sandra McCracken (wife)

ALBUMS: She Must and Shall Go Free (2003); I See Things Upside Down (2004); Mockingbird (2005); The Ringing Bell (2007); The Ampersand EP (with Sandra McCracken; 2008); Stockholm Syndrome (2009)

HOW: I believe the first time I heard Derek Webb’s solo work was in 2004, just a year after his controversial first album was released. My roommate Kyle suggested him to me, and I was instantly captivated by this radical poet and musical rebel. He was coming from a decade spent in Caedmon’s Call, one of the most popular (and thus most safe) bands in “Contemporary Christian Music” (CCM); and because Caedmon’s songs, of the few I had heard, seemed to belong to that popular category of “watered-down adult-contemporary coffeehouse” songs that characterize the broad sweep of what is (unfortunately) labeled in America as “Christian” music — let’s just say I was hesitant.

However, upon even a casually cursory first listen, Derek Webb’s music most certainly did not fit into that category. Instead, his first album — and as I came to discover later, all that came afterward — was and is a direst response to having been in the belly of the beast for so long, to seeing it up close, warts and all. As a resident of Nashville, the heart of the CCM industry, and as a longtime member and observer of those churches and those Christians which give such an awful and hypocritical name to the faith, Derek Webb has seen it all. From the beginning, then, it was clear his music was an ongoing attempt at a faithful response.

And since 2004, with each new release, I have been there, anxious in anticipation, waiting to see just how that faithfulness will come to word in lyric and note.

WHY: The oddest, but perhaps most lovable, thing about Derek Webb is that each of his albums stands alone in both theme and musical style, a sort of biennial experiment at embodying what is occupying his life and mind by way of musical expression. She Must and Shall Go Free is his purest record, a minor classic by virtue of its perfectly wedded theme — of the perpetual unfaithfulness of the church amid the unrelenting love of God — with its rollicking, southern-influenced, insistently acoustic music. The following albums might be characterized in these ways:

I See Things Upside Down: an intriguing attempt at intentionally messing up all that came before, and while not ultimately successful, a grower and persistently interesting. Its theme? The church’s capitulation to American empire and culture.

Mockingbird: a return to form, a move away from experimental quirkiness, and if not for a few songs that lower the overall quality of the album, an instant classic on par with SMASGF. Its theme? Social and economic injustice, in continued concert with the church’s blasphemous allegiance to the state.

The Ringing Bell: the only unqualified misfire of the group. If not for the closing song, “This Too Shall Be Made Right,” Derek Webb’s attempt at plugging in and being a rock star would have been a complete failure. Whatever Paste Magazine may have been smoking when they called this one of the best albums of 2007, its primary redemptive quality is its still-excellent lyrics, but which in this case are most profitably enjoyed in the fantastic graphic novel which accompanied one of the packages available for purchase. The album’s theme? The evils of violence, sanctioned, systemic, or otherwise, and (surprise) the church’s complicity in it.

Stockholm Syndrome: neither rock nor a return to acoustic roots, this is Derek Webb’s first clearly successful experimental album, mixing beats and odd lyrical patterns to match the dark, graphic content of the lyrics. And its theme? Even more complex than usual; a combination of cultural areas in which Christians do more harm than good: sexuality, consumerism, division, and overall fear-mongering.

Viewed as a whole, a fascinating and still-unfinished output by an artist who refuses to play by the rules.

SONGS: Coalescing around 55 or so total songs into 20 wasn’t too difficult of a task. Most of Derek Webb’s albums have a clear “cream of the crop” selection of three or four songs that both are the best he has to offer and best represent who he is as an artist. The only songs I regretted having to leave out were “Lover Part 2” (too long, and without a doubt less than perfect, but powerful in all its strange imperfections) and “Saint and Sinner” (so much fun, but that’s why this is only an introduction!).

Apart from “This Too Shall Be Made Right,” one of my all-time favorites is Webb’s take on the Christmas song “Lo How a Rose E’re Blooming,” which only becomes more beautiful with each new listen. Beyond that, explore for yourself and enjoy!

LYRICS: Somehow I found a way to talk about Derek Webb, even at length, without talking about his lyrics. But rather than talk about them, I thought I might entice you with samples from various songs:

“I am a whore, I do confess / I put you on just like a wedding dress / And I run down the aisle / I’m a prodigal with no way home / I put you on just like a ring of gold / And I run down the aisle” (“Wedding Dress,” SMASGF)

“There are two great lies that I’ve heard: / “The day you eat the fruit of that tree you will not surely die” / And that Jesus Christ was a white middle-class Republican / And if you wanna be saved you gotta learn / To be like him” (“A King and a Kingdom,” Mockingbird)

“Cause we can talk and debate it till we’re blue in the face / About the language and tradition that he’s comin’ to save / Meanwhile we sit / Just like we don’t give a shit / About fifty thousand people who are dyin’ today” (“What Matters More,” SS)

NOTE: Tomorrow is the official release of Derek Webb’s new album Stockholm Syndrome, so be sure to head over to his website and download one of the digital packages available there, or go out and buy the physical CD at your local record store.

LINK: Click on the list below to see the 80MFL iMix, where you can listen to samples, download what sounds good, or get the whole thing!

Click the list for our Derek Webb iMix

~ by Brad East on August 31, 2009.

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