In Brief: The hooks hit hard and the words hit harder. A watershed moment in Webb’s career, and one of my favorite albums of 2009.
Well, I never thought I’d see the day, but it’s finally here. Derek Webb, according to many observers, has finally gone off the rails and delivered an album of Christian music with objectionable enough content that it can only be sold as a “censored version” in Christian bookstores. Didn’t this sort of thing seem like a joke six years ago, when Webb first struck out on his own from the alternative CCM juggernaut Caedmon’s Call with a highly twangy solo debut that dared to use the word “wh*re”? (I can’t even type that word according to Epinions’ standards, and yet ironically, it’s in the Bible.) I remember seeing images floating around the Internet of “Parental Advisory” stickers slapped on the cover of She Must and Shall Go Free, and those of us who appreciated what Webb was trying to do got a good guffaw out of that, but we never imagined that a few years down the road, he’d be taking his cues from an infamous Tony Campolo quip and chiding legalistic Christians for not giving a sh*t about starving people in third-world countries. That freaked out the record label that had supported him all these years, and after a lengthy period of negotiation which Webb saw fit to turn into an online treasure hunt that was almost as complex as your average Lost-themed alternate reality game, they finally struck an agreement, and Webb’s Stockholm Syndrome will now be sold in Christian bookstores, sans the offending song. A song which Derek considers to be the most important song on his most important album. All because he said the word “sh*t”. Once.
Now it’s no secret that I’m not a huge fan of swear words in the music that I listen to. I have a filthy enough mouth on my own sometimes; I probably don’t need the encouragement. Over the years, I’ve tried to focus less on the choice of words and more on the meaning, so I’m not really miffed at a band like Over the Rhine for the occasional expletive these days. But regardless of my own personal views on the issue, it seems to me that it would be a shame to ignore an entire album full of challenging social commentary and intriguing musical experimentation just because a Chrsitian dude dared to say a bad word. On the one hand, I can appreciate that Derek probably should have seen this coming and know that his choice of words would ruffle the feathers of the very audience he was trying to convict. On the other hand, it makes me laugh that the same people might not have batted an eyelash at “give a rip” or maybe even “give a crap”. (“Give a damn” might have been pushing it.) Equivalent meanings, though in this case, Derek wanted to be quite literal since he’s working on setting up a charity for third world folks in need of latrines so that they can live in sanitary conditions. I’m not joking. http://www.giveash*t.org is apparently under construction as we speak.
But let’s not focus on one swear word, and miss the entire forest for the sake of a single tree. What Derek Webb has accomplished on Stockholm Syndrome is a work that stands with the best of ’em – the misunderstood and sometimes outcast voices of Christian music who told us stuff we didn’t want to hear about the way we were living our comfortable lives. He’s really been at that ever since his first record, which had a lot of good things to say about Christians who were down on the Church as an institution but couldn’t see how they contributed to the problem, and then he started to up the political ante with I See Things Upside Down and especially Mockingbird, a record which was so weighed down with theological points about how our identity as Christians has to supersede our sense of nationalism that the music felt almost like an afterthought. Webb came out of that slump with The Ringing Bell, an all-too-brief but enjoyable rock record, and despite any experimentation in between, it was always easy to regard him as a “rootsy” sort of artist. We couldn’t have been prepared for this total left turn, as Stockholm Syndrome thrusts almost all of its acoustic instrumentation into a supporting role and lets glitchy electronic sounds, skittery trip-hop beats, and killer bass lines rule the day. No, he hasn’t pulled a Joaquin Phoenix and ditched everything we knew about him for a hip-hop career. He’s got too good of a singing voice for that. Instead, he’s pulled a Beck or a Portishead, reminding us that Derek Webb is not easily pinned down to a single musical style. And somewhere along the way, he decided that an audience could be more effectively instigated to take action if the music gave ’em a little more of a punch in the eye rather than lulling them into contentment. I like a good twangy folk song as much as the next guy, but strumming the same old four chords can only demand so much attention, you know?
And really, when you get down into the nitty-gritty of it, while Derek might speak his mind more boldly and abrasively on Stockholm Syndrome than ever before, the subject matter isn’t that much of a shock to the system. he’s been question the dichotomy of American vs. Christian and our tendency to confuse one with the other ever since his early days. He’s been questioning hypocrisy in the church and outing himself as the worst of sinners since he first talked about wearing that tattered wedding dress on his debut. I feel like he’s just gotten a bit better at it with this album. While I’ll admit that the music is certainly way catchier here, and that might be a bit of a sticking point for folks accustomed to the folk/rock trappings that have been his comfort zone ever since the early days of Caedmon’s Call, it’s very easy to come up with a catchy beat and then use it to cover the fact that you’re saying nothing, so I know better than to give Derek the full five stars just for that. He earned it here by showing me that preaching to the choir is sometimes exactly what the choir needs, because they’re so convinced that you should be out there preaching to the “sinners” that they don’t see themselves as having any more sins to be saved from. Derek can only get away with telling us this if he can show us how he’s like this, too, and his honesty and cutting sincerity are commendable. If this music isn’t “safe for the whole family”, it’s probably because that Jesus guy ain’t safe for any of us. (I seem to recall one of Jesus’s earliest followers describing his righteousness as basically being a pile of sh*t, but then, most of us are used to a heavily bowdlerized translation of that sentiment.)
1. Opening Credits
The swirling of synths, drums, Derek’s wordless vocals and a bass groove which sounds a litle bit too close to Radiohead‘s “Airbag” for comfort is the first thing heard on the album. This is probably meant to lull us into a false sense of security before the tone abruptly changes, but this isn’t the best way to start off an album that is intended to make a statement. Fortunately it gets way better from here.
2. Black Eye
If the sudden blast of jerky, dissonant synth tones was the first thing you heard upon popping in the CD, you’d likely assume it was skipping or something, as Derek dives into full-on glitch mode for one of his most challenging tracks – musically and lyrically. The angular, trip-hop approach to the melody can be almost off-putting at first, but the twisted groove becomes addictive once you get used to it, resolving into a slightly more conventional melodic approach for the chorus. It’s a hard-hitting chorus – I may not know exactly where a literal description of an abusive relationship ends and Derek’s use of that situation as a metaphor begins, but I know that it stings a bit when he concludes, “Time looks the same at the ones who hate and the ones who do nothing”. The “black eye” that Derek claims to have (as seen on the album cover) makes it sound like he’s playing the role of a victim of physical abuse, which brings the album title into play since “Stockholm Syndrome” is a psychological phenomenon in which a person who is held captive starts to fall in love with their captor. Something tells me Derek’s usage of the term ain’t just about boyfriends beating up their girlfriends, though. He’s trying to get at something deeper, but I can’t quite tell what it is just yet.
3. Cobra Con
Th twang of a banjo nicely sets up the groove for this next song – it’s the best combination of the banjo with an urban rhythm that I can think of since John Reuben‘s “Make Money Money”. it would be a crime to hook ’em in with such a killer groove and then not have anything important to say, so Derek goes for the throat in this one, taking down the Johnny-come-latelies who attach themselves to a cause to get attention. He notes that it’s easy to make a lot of noise, to get up in people’s faces, to vandalize, to protest violently as a way of getting people’s attention, than it is to truly walk beside and understand the plight of the people you claim to be sticking up for. “It is harder to stay, it is harder to wait, to out-love, to out-suffer them”, he reminds us in the effortlessly catchy chorus, before throwing a clever bit of wordplay at us in the bridge: “I wanna hold your hand… grenade.” Man, that’s a line that I’d expect on a Green Day album. Just that one line encapsulates the misguided concept of violence as a form of love in a better way than a lot of songwriters could manage in an entire verse.
4. Freddie, Please
Derek’s genre mish-mash experiment continues with what sounds at first like it should be a sweet love song played at a prom some time during the 1950’s, only to glitch it up a bit with a little static and a programmed beat. Yet there’s that piano, happily plinking along in 6/8 time as if you could be swinging a girl in a long hoop dress around while dancing to it. This ain’t no love song. Its language is familiar, even intimate, but it’s actually an indictment of the nutjob pastor Fred Phelps, possibly the most hateful Christian in all of America, with Derek imagining what exactly Jesus might say to a guy who claims to love Jesus but hates gays and Jews and blacks and the military and any President in office, and… well, pretty much everybody. I love how Derek makes subtle use of Biblical principles to point out the guy’s flawed reasoning, subtly implying that what is done to the least of these is done unto Jesus when he remarks, “You’re picketing my grave, but why do you seek the living among the dead?” There’s some great stuff in here, but it’s fair to ask the question: Were any of us really in danger of falling for Phelps’ shtick if we hadn’t heard this song? I think most everyone who knows of the guy knows how deplorable his actions are – Phelps is an easy target, and there’d be little point to this song if it were just to point out his flaws. What really informs this song is the comment Derek made in “Black Eye” about doing nothing being as bad as actively hating. Does this mean Jesus could have some choice words for me like He would for Phelps? Am I enjoying pointing the finger at Phelps while finding my own excuses to hate (or just plain ignore) my brother? Uh-oh.
5. The Spirit Vs. the Kick Drum
“A one, and a two, and a chick-a-boom-a-chick!” So begins what is definitely the most fun song on the album, with producer Josh Moore going into absolute overdrive on the drums while a slick, up-tempo bass groove follows along. Drum and bass are the heart and soul of this playful and yet incisive song, in which Derek dismantles his own ability to see God as a big Santa Claus in the sky. That’s how I read the three wishes that form the central refrains of this song. First is “I don’t want the Spirit, I want the kick drum”, which to me means, “I don’t want to be convicted and changed; I just want God to make me feel warm and fuzzy.” Second is “I don’t want the Son, I want a jury of peers”, basically meaning it’s too hard to be like Jesus, so I just want to live a life that looks good to other people. Finally comes the clincher: “I don’t want the Father, I want a vending machine”. That one’s almost self-explanatory. Derek’s tongue seems to be perfectly in cheek, which fits the musical mood of the song – it’s much easier to want that kick drum, because man, it sounds pretty awesome to me! How often do we hear Christian music that makes us feel good, only to be completely unaware of the things God is trying to challenge us about? Sometimes we seem to only want the fun parts of who God is.
6. What Matters More
Here’s the song at the dead center of all the controversy – if you have the retail version, then your track listing will omit this one entirely. And that’s too bad – another sick beat kicks in and some eerie, Radiohead-style synthesizers immediately warn you that this one’s gonna throw you off a bit. Derek’s commentary is at its most fiery and pointed level of intensity here, as he calls out Christians who spend more of their time trying to force others to adopt a culturally modified mode of “good behavior” than trying to actually fight the injustices in the world around them. If you think it stings to hear the line “If you really believe what you say you believe, you wouldn’t be so damn reckless with the words you speak”, then just wait, Derek’s only getting warmed up. He’s pretty irate that we’ve spent more time trying to convince people not to be gay, or policing their language, or whatever, than actively trying to love them and feed them and clothe them and so forth. This gives way to the Tony Campolo paraphrase that has stirred up the most ire from the Christian music community: “We can talk and debate until we’re blue in the face about the language and tradition that He’s coming to save; Meanwhile we sit just like we don’t give a sh!t about fifty thousand people who are dying today.” That’s how petty we’ve become – obsessing over removing a list of reserved words from our speech while not losing an ounce of sleep over tragedies like AIDS and human trafficking, etc. Easy for me to pump my fist and root for Derek – I love it when someone’s daring enough to tell it like it is about problems within the Church. But does it motivate me to care? And will it motivate others, or will they get too hung up on being offended by Derek’s language? These are tough questions that could spark an endless flurry of message board and chat room debates. But man, hell of a song.
7. The State
Derek mellows out here with more of a languid tune (complete with a subtle echo to the programmed beat that always throws me off of its intended rhythm) that subtly takes on a misplaced sense of nationalism prevalent in the mindset of many Christians. He describes a slow slide down a slippery slope, but it’s not what you’d expect from the usual Christian song on the decaying morals of America. Derek seems more concerned that we’ve got our national identity and our identity in Christ confused, giving us all sorts of loopholes where we feel perfectly OK doing whatever’s legal according to the laws of the land even if it ain’t exactly kosher according to a higher standard. “That was the day before I married my conscience to the state”, he wryly observes, and the moral crimes he describes aren’t your usual laundry list sexual deviancy and other stuff that happens in R-rated movies. They’re thornier issues of what happens in our hearts that can’t be legislated by any act of Congress – the things you think and do and say when nobody seems to be watching. If it’s good enough for America, and if so many of us assume that God blesses America, does that make it good enough for God?
8. The Proverbial Gun
The unresolved, hanging note that ends “The State” carries right over into what is essentially the second half of a long song. The mood relaxes even more, surprisingly allowing a simple acoustic strum to carry most of its weight until near the end when the drum programming and keyboards start to get much busier, just to cloud the issue a bit. Derek’s got a list of crimes that “the letter of the law” allows him to get away with, his voice getting more raspy and more mournful as he recounts a trial in which he was able to bribe the judge and rig the jury and get off scott-free by the end of its first day. All of this moralizing about God’s laws vs. our laws would probably seem incessantly preachy if Derek’s tone wasn’t confessional enough to make you believe that this was honestly a personal struggle for him. I can relate to that. On the average day, I’m probably more prone to think, “That’s not so bad. Nobody’ll arrest or even fine me for that. I can get away with it.” rather than, “Will this action really honor God?”
9. I Love/Hate You
I’m sure I must have heard this song’s vaguely urban dance/pop beat somewhere in the early 90’s. Normally that’d be a reason for derision, but since Derek wryly matches this beat up with a flute that gives the song a bit of Far East flavor, and the whole thing is really just the facade of a love song serving as commentary on a more sinister type of relationship, I think it’s actually one of the album’s most memorable and intriguing songs. God help’s Derek marriage if this song about a lover whose appearance is as seductive as “the curves of the moon” and yet whose love is “a noose around my neck” is about his wife! I’m certain it must be a metaphor for an especially attractive flavor of sin, or perhaps even a Christian’s relationship with the world around them. It’s left open to interpretation, and the slick beat and highly singable refrain sure make it fun to puzzle over.
10. Becoming a Slave
The percussion, while still up-tempo, takes more of a jazzy approach in another drum and bass-dominated song, with a little help from the piano to give it more of a distinctive, contemplative melody. There’s a strong undertone of racial injustice to this one, but is it about America’s mistreatment of African Americans? Native Americans? Is it speaking about all of us, becoming slaves to a system of false information and paranoia perpetuated by those who want us to keep buying things? Again, you get to be the judge. The song could reach as far back as the origins of our country, or it could describe a uniquely 21st century problem. The brief sample of what sounds like a female Gospel or R&B singer claiming “We won’t just live in the system” (which admittedly kills the momentum of the record just a tad) might be a clue, but I still need to work on this one a bit. It’s food for thought, and I’ve already pigged out on other dishes at Derek’s buffet.
11. Jena & Jimmy
This song’ll leave you unsure of whether to dance your booty off or run screaming from the club. Another old-school bass line and some old-school techno blips perfectly match the personality of this song’s protagonist, a bad boy roaming the dance floor, looking for his next victim. This bad boy, Jimmy, meets up with a social activist named Jena, a woman who is 100% convicted of her causes, to whom Jimmy has no problem smiling and nodding so long as he thinks it’ll help get her in the sack with him. It takes a lot of gusto to pull off a song that essentially warns us about guys who will say or do anything to get into a woman’s pants – normally this type of subject matter is saved for the awkward, heavy-handed, abstinence-themed stuff that gets thrown at your average youth group. But the message here isn’t so much “Don’t have sex with shady men” as it is a cautionary tale about people who only jump on the “cause of the week” bandwagon for the short term benefits. It’s a bit of a creative writing exercise based on the problem described in “Cobra Con”. It’s sex, politics, and religion all rolled into one, so feel free to bring this one up at the dinner table!
While the approach throughout much of the album seems to have been to take a “mad genius” sort of beat and stuff some of Derek’s favorite acoustic instruments in through the back door, this is a track that feels like it could have translated more easily from Derek’s old folk style into the type of music he’s making now. It’s a simple folk song gone electronic, with the syncopated “bump” of the bass and some glitzy keyboards gurgling in time to a basic chord progression on the acoustic guitar. (As such, it’s probably one of the few songs from Stockholm that would would work in a one-man, unplugged setting. It’ll be interesting to see how Derek pulls off most of this album live.) One of Derek’s most clever metaphors is unleashed here, describing a homeless man, possibly an immigrant, who “dies” to his old life and is reborn in an America that he has been told is basically Heaven – streets of gold, opportunity around every corner, and all that. Yet all he sees is indifferent people trying to sell him stuff, and no hand to hold when he reaches out for charity. Sometimes I wonder if our stereotypical American view of “Heaven” has started to look an awful lot like America, just with cleaner streets and no crime and everybody having infinite bank accounts that will get them into the kind of mansions we can only drool over here on Earth. And I wonder if we’ve taught others to see America this way, only for them to experience a harsh reality if they manage to reach our shores. That’s not so much a statement on the pros vs. cons of immigration as it is another look at the way we confuse our Christian identity with our American identity. Now salvation is simply starting to look like freedom from financial worries. It becomes a cheap message, a commodity that is bought and sold. U2 explored this problem a bit on their woefully misunderstood album Pop – Derek probably runs the risk of being similarly misunderstood here (though with all the controversy about “What Matters More”, those most inclined to criticize probably won’t even make it to this song).
13. What You Give Up to Get It
We’ve got one last up-tempo, danceable song here that is almost all drums, bass, and synth – I sometimes lose this one in the shuffle when I compare it to the head-nodding goodness found earlier in the album, but if the worst I can say is that Derek packed too many insightful and hook-laden songs into a single album, then well, that ain’t much of a criticism. His thoughts are more elliptical here, never quit explaining what the proverbial “it” is, but citing a lot of examples of sacrifices that aren’t quite worth the payoff – “Like sex when you’re too young”, “Like fame for what you’re not”, “Like getting everything you wanted with a line of bad credit”, etc. It’s a thought never quite completed, but still a fun song.
14. American Flag Umbrella
The final track actually feels like it would have been right at home on I See Things Upside Down, which was previously Derek’s most challenging and musically left-of-center offering before he dropped this doozy of an album on us. I say that because the “stark piano ballad with a bit of mechanical distortion” approach reminds me of several songs from ISTUD, and that album as a whole was a sonic experiment that followed in the footsteps of Wilco (the song “Reservations” especially comes to mind here). Strip away the studio trimmings and it’s really just an honest song that could have closed any of his albums, as he asks hard questions about whether God’s really on our side if we ignore the oppressed, the hungry, the poor. It might be easy to assume that Derek’s attacking America at this point – he’s certainly been accused of a lack of patriotism in the past. But I’m of the opinion that asking what our country could do better is one of the best ways a Christian can love and serve his country. It doesn’t mean squat if you can’t contribute to that better ideal, of course. But really, he’s just challenging us about the things Christ asked His followers to do, and that we who call ourselves both Americans and Christians (yeah, us commoners, not just the folks running the government) had better take seriously if we’re to have any grounds for calling this nation “great”. It’s a strong statement. Many will disagree and think he’s taking it too far. Some days I’m a bit uneasy about it myself. But I appreciate the dialogue that a song like this is bound to start, and while the tone of the music is more relaxed, it’s a still a heck of a way to close out the album.
While I have my qualms with the whole censorship issue, I think Stockholm Syndrome makes a strong statement even with the song “What Matters More” removed from the track listing, so I’m glad that the album is available in Christian bookstores in some form. But if you want the full project, no holds barred, order it from the store on Derek’s website. There are a plethora of options there, from a simple digital download you can get immediately on the cheap, to the physical CD (he throws in a copy of the “clean” and “explicit” versions for the price of one and you can choose which to keep and which to give away), to some fancier packages involving a documentary and special packaging and other goodies, for the hardcore fans who probably don’t need me to tell them about this. I really appreciate this approach – if you just want the music, you can pay for only that without having to shell out a ton of cash for extras you don’t want. You can also preview every track on the album on his site’s home page, and for those who do end up with the store-bought “censored” version, “What Matters More” can also readily be heard via YouTube. Derek seems pretty committed to making sure that folks hear his music – in some cases, even if he doesn’t get immediately compensated for it, which tells me that what he has to say is more important to him than how much money he makes saying it. (Though his earlier experiment with giving away Mockingbird for free seemed to pay him back just fine in terms of reputation and fan loyalty, if not in terms of sales figures.) So feel free to do like I do and pass that “clean” copy along to someone who might be open to Derek’s music but might not be quite ready to swallow his strongest statements. Can’t hurt to give it a try.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Opening Credits $0
Black Eye $1.50
Cobra Con $1.50
Freddie, Please $2
The Spirit Vs. the Kick Drum $2
What Matters More $1.50
The State $1
The Proverbial Gun $1
I Love/Hate You $2
Becoming a Slave $1
Jena & Jimmy $2
What You Give Up to Get It $1.50
American Flag Umbrella $1
TOTAL: $19.50 (Uncensored version) / $18 (Retail version)
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.