In Brief: It takes some patience to get into its odd blend of sounds, but Ctrl is a unique and worthwhile entry in Webb’s prolific discography.
Derek Webb is no stranger to controversy. I can only assume that Derek Webb is also no stranger to the phrase “Derek Webb is no stranger to controversy”. I think some variant of that phrase was pretty much a requirement in any review or article written about his 2009 album, Stockholm Syndrome. It was the sort of album that was deliberately designed to be a shock to the system – not to offend the deep-thinking Christian fanbase he’d amassed so far (though it did a pretty good job of that anyway), but its sudden genre switch from the downtempo acoustic and roots rock style Derek had been previously known for to bass and percussion-heavy electronic music was a difficult pill to swallow for some, and for others, there was that whole issue of Derek’s language. One swear word in a single song, censored from the retail release of the album but definitely generating enough debate and discussion to overshadow everything else on the album, ironically ended up proving Derek’s point (really a slight rephrase of a point Tony Campolo made quite some time ago) that we church folk seem to care more about legalism and keeping up appearances than about actually caring for our brothers and sisters in Christ.
But I’ve already talked about Stockholm Syndrome – an album which I’ve adored from the very first time I heard it – in the review I wrote of it four years ago. I only bring it up because it was such a radical change for Derek that it’s difficult for another radical change to be as surprising to his fanbase nowadays. Webb had become one of my favorite songwriters during his tenure with Caedmon’s Call, and looking back, I’ve come to appreciate his Americana-heavy solo debut She Must and Shall Go Free a lot more than I did back when it was brand new. But still, listening to a lot of Derek’s solo stuff has been like having to eat your vegetables as a kid. You’re repeatedly told it’s good for you, but sometimes, it just isn’t all that tasty. There were times on the albums leading up to Stockholm Syndrome when I wondered if Derek felt that making a song too up-tempo or too catchy would reduce the impact of its message. I figured he had found a solution to that problem on Stockholm, but then a lot of his fanbase complained that they missed the acoustic stuff, leaving Derek with a new problem to solve.
Whether his 2012 album, Ctrl, was specifically designed as a way to respond to both the segments of his fanbase who liked the electronic stuff and the ones who wished he would go back to being more folksy again, or whether it’s just another attempt to confound all of our expectations, is hard to say. It’s a largely down-tempo album, similar in its overall pacing to I See Things Upside Down or Mockingbird, that comes across as much more personal and experimental than anything Derek’s ever done. Acoustic guitar is the backbone of many of these songs, but it’s a frail backbone in many cases, propped up by laptop-generated rhythms that are designed more for reflection than revolution. Filling in the gaps in several places is the album’s oddest element – old recordings of choirs singing shape-note style (meaning that they literally sound out the notes – “do”, “re”, “mi” and so on), sampled and electronically manipulated to fill in the sort of role that keyboards or synthesizers might normally play, or something thrown in as bizarre, jarring interludes between songs. That isn’t always a bad thing, since many of the songs built on this recipe come across as intriguing and unique. But at times, it can be a burdensome gimmick, only momentarily distracting us from a song that has a serious case of the “blahs”. Patience will be rewarded somewhat – the album’s three most up-tempo songs are all in its back half, and even then, none of it approaches the energy level sustained throughout most of Stockholm.
Now I’m not saying that the album is bad because it is mostly slow. The unhurried pace of most of it fits the reflective and sometimes dreamlike dialogue that seems to be going on between Derek’s willing spirit and weak flesh. Themes of curiosity, temptation, commitment, laziness, and ultimately redemption run throughout Ctrl, an album which seems to be quite literally about a man’s struggle to control his thoughts and impulses. This subject matter isn’t controversial only because it’s wrapped in metaphors that generally serve to soften the blow, and because it comes across as a reflection rather than a lecture, so those who disagree or don’t relate won’t necessarily feel like they’re getting a talking-to (which admittedly was one of the weaknesses of Stockholm). But you could say that lust and greed play a role in some of the otherwise unassuming tracks on this album. It’s uncomfortable if you really sit down and think deeply about the words he’s singing. Ctrl plays like the soundtrack to a sleepless night, in which a man confronts who he really is in the dark when no one’s looking, with the rays of the morning sun only shining in near the very end. I don’t find myself reaching for it as often, or under the same circumstances, as I might give Stockholm or The Ringing Bell another spin. But I’m glad to have found the gems tucked in between the more tedious tunes on this album – some of them understated but beautiful, some of them bouncy and confident in their own weird ways.
1. And See the Flaming Skies
The bizarre choir samples are actually the first thing you hear on the album, taking a good minute or so to fade in, the dusty old recordings distorted and smeared, before finally giving way to Derek’s guitar picking and a light electronic beat. Some albums wait to bring out the heavy stuff, but with this short intro track, Derek just throws you in, worrying over questions about whether he’s born just to die and what shall become of him afterwards. I’m going to guess that this is more of a metaphor than a literal death – the “death to self” often spoken of in Christianity. It still doesn’t make the song any more comforting. And it isn’t until the end of it that the choir and Derek’s melody are juxtaposed in a way that starts to make sense.
2. A City with No Name
Here the album enters a bit of a dream state, led by the cool, even tones of Josh Moore‘s keyboards. This song isn’t in a hurry to get anywhere, and it’s strange for this album to feel musically a bit dead in the water on only the second track, but it starts to pick up with bells, light percussion and acoustic guitar later on, as the song delves deeper into Derek’s psyche. He’s fully aware that this is a world that he can control – a lucid dream of sorts, I guess – and here, fantasies can be realized without consequence. Yet the sense of fulfillment is short-lived, and the abrupt outcome never changes: “It’s a place you cannot live/In a city with no name/You can have what you bring in/But it always ends the same.” I tend to get bored with this song, but the lyrics are a good setup for what’s to come.
3. Can’t Sleep
Over a stuttering, mid-tempo acoustic rhythm, Derek laments not being able to sleep, but the issue seems to be less about insomnia and more about fear of what he might find in the corners of his mind during the REM phase: “Friends I’ll never meet/The wife I’ll never take/The strength that I don’t feel/All mine to create/Here beneath these sheets/The robbery takes place/And everything I am/All goes up in flames.” This one has a really strange vibe at first due to its “bumpy” rhythm, but when a second guitar chimes in with more of a rich, echoing melody, and the choir samples begin to swell up in time with the rhythm, it starts to feel like it’s going somewhere, only to feel like it ends somewhat prematurely.
This long, pensive ballad is a subtle but beautiful construction – the rich, flowing guitar melody is one of Derek’s finest from any era of his career, and it’s lightly but fittingly accented with laid-back drums and woodwinds. There’s an alternate version of Ctrl that Derek released as a bonus, presumably for the purist fans who like to hear him alone with a guitar, and I can honestly say that this is one of the songs that didn’t suffer at all from stripping back the excess instrumentation. It’s breathtaking in both its naked and clothed forms. It also features some of Derek’s best songwriting – perhaps not in the way that most fans are used to, with some sort of heavy-hitting theological conviction, but it’s one of his most confessional songs thus far, and it resonates pretty deeply with me. I could quote pretty much the entire song and mine each line of it for the myriad thoughts that spin off in my brain about how I’ve been there and felt that, but if I had to sum up the song (and the album) with a single phrase, I’d pick this one: “I love what I can control/So I don’t love very much.” Unfortunately, Derek chooses to segue out of this gorgeous piece of music with an incredibly intrusive choir sample, that just hangs out there all by itself, not at all related to the melody and rhythm of the song, lasting way too long and getting way too creepy to fit the mood of the surrounding songs as it gets slowed down and pitch-shifted. It seriously hurts the song if taken as part of it, and every time, I just want it to be over with.
5. Pressing on the Bruise
This is one of those songs that sounds like it could have some real attitude and bite to it, thanks to its sassy melody and the sort of funky riffing that Derek does on the acoustic. The choir is also worked into this one incredibly well, playing more of a rhythmic role when they do appear. Unfortunately, for most of its duration, it feels like a sluggish approximation of a coffeehouse band trying to play funk-influenced pop music. I’m not quite buying it, despite how much the lounged-out keyboards and other ambient sounds may try to lure me in. The song confronts the life of Derek as a two-faced man, one who excels at looking good on the outside, but who is a slave to his temptations on the inside, and his temptress is like a cruel slave-driver, intentionally playing on his weaknesses just to get him to do her bidding. The song dies a slow death at the end as its rhythm gradually falls apart, which I know was intentional, but it has the unfortunate side effect of making me want to snarkily comment on how it already felt like it was doing that most of the way through.
6. Attonitos Gloria
A few songs thus far have brought us mild doses of weirdness, but this is the first one that seems to fully indulge in the weirdness in a way that might bring a smile to the face of Stockholm Syndrome fans. It’s one of the two most electronic songs on the album, still driven by a syncopated acoustic guitar rhythm (and one that holds up surprisingly well all by its lonesome on the acoustic companion album), but heavily fortified by synth bass, drum programming, keyboards, and didgeridoo, of all things. (And if you don’t love the didgeridoo, or at least saying the word “didgeridoo” out loud, then you’re just no fun at all.) With Derek being the theology nerd that he is, you might see the Latin title and assume this is some sort of a worship song, or at least something interpreted from an ancient text. It roughly translates to “Awestruck Glory”, but given Derek’s description of a female apparition that he can’t take his eyes or hands off of even though he knows he must, it becomes clear that being dumbfounded and immobilized by her radiant glory might not be the best thing for him. Even the melody of the song seems to induce vertigo, slipping uncomfortably up and down the scale as Derek picks odd notes to fit an unusual chord progression. The first time you hear this one, you may find it off-key and off-putting. But keep listening. Perseverance has made this one my personal favorite on the album.
7. I Feel Everything
From the bouncy but dangerous heights of the previous song, we fall precipitously into the doldrums of this unpolished, dry dirge of a song that seems like it takes forever to make its point. It’s not without its interesting bits of instrumental accompaniment, but the scratchier side of Derek’s voice seems to be front and center here, which doesn’t help an already dull melody. I’m getting uncomfortable flashbacks to the moments on I See Things Upside Down that tried my patience the most. I get the sense that this is a song about sensory deprivation, because Derek seems afraid to feel or hear or see here, lest he let the thoughts back in that have taken his mind to all of those dangerous places before. So I’m tracking with the idea behind the song – at least, I think I am – but the song just drags on and on with its stubborn, repetitive insistence on not really doing anything exciting throughout. The song finally gives up the ghost at the end, to the sound of a heart monitor beeping and flatlining… which unfortunately leads into another jarring choral sample (this time they’re singing actual English words, so it seems a little more meaningful, but it still hurts my ears and feels tacked on ad hoc rather than worked into the song in a convincing manner).
As the flatline becomes a beating heart once again, a much more melodic, organic acoustic melody comes floating out of it, giving us the first genuinely peaceful and happy moment on the album. I love the way that the nimble guitar picking and the drums come along to brighten the mood – the contrast between death and life as one track segues into the next is striking in the best possible way. Given a second shot at life itself, and totally humbled by the experience, Derek finally throws the curtains opens and greets the new morning by expressing a combination of gratitude and disbelief: “I cannot believe my eyes/I am alive.” It’s hard to do justice to life-changing epiphanies in song form, but this one comes pretty darn close.
9. A Real Ghost
In our final slow, reflective song before the album ends, Derek looks back with the new sense of clarity he’s found at the afflictions and temptations that plagued him before. Memories of them still hang around like ghosts, despite the change of heart rendering him mostly immune to those old pitfalls. The words come out slowly and carefully here, as if Derek can only find fragmented thoughts to describe his new frame of mind. There are some compelling bits here, and I like the atmosphere given to it by the two finger-picked guitars working together. But there’s not quite enough of a buildup or a compelling refrain here to keep me coming back to it. For me it’s mostly just a bridge to the big finale.
10. Around Every Corner
Even Derek’s most up-tempo albums, including Stockholm Syndrome, have ended with a stripped-down slow song, so you probably wouldn’t expect Ctrl to end with its one of Derek’s all-time catchiest songs. But here, he combines a minor-key acoustic melody with a bumping beat, skittering electronic sounds, and even little bits of the choir that sound like they’re being spun and scratched by a DJ, and all of these come together to create a pop song as irresistible as Stockholm‘s “Jena & Jimmy” or “Cobra Con”. Once again, I have to commend Derek and Josh for weaving together such a full-bodied confection without losing focus on the acoustic riff that pins it down and that supports it admirably even when left on its own in the “unplugged” version. But the lyrics to this one… man, they really baffle me. Derek seems to be summing up the lessons learned through the exploration of, and ultimately the redemption from, the hell that masqueraded as his dream playground. The moral of the story seems to be that curiosity killed the cat, because here he renounces the desire for anything beyond what he has, and declares himself to be reformed from his old, exploratory ways. “Hard as it may be to someday resist/The will of a hardwired explorer/I hereby commit myself to stop/Looking around every corner.” It pains me a little, being one of those “hard-wired explorers” myself, but I’m probably not getting the full context of Derek’s conviction here, and I probably shouldn’t interpret as a set of instructions he expects all Christians to follow or anything like that. Ctrl is too personal of an album to be read as though it were a rule book or a sermon. It’s just a man being honest about what bits of wisdom have helped him out and what follies God has rescued him from over the past few years.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
And See the Flaming Skies $1
A City with No Name $.25
Can’t Sleep $1
Pressing on the Bruise $.50
Attonitos Gloria $1.75
I Feel Everything -$.50
A Real Ghost $.50
Around Every Corner $1.75
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.