Derek Webb – Fingers Crossed: The devil, too, deserves some boundaries

Artist: Derek Webb
Album: Fingers Crossed
Year: 2017
Grade: C+

In Brief: Lyrically, Fingers Crossed is a harrowing tale of a man’s guilt, anguish, and possible loss of faith in the messy aftermath of an extramarital affair. Musically, it’s mostly a low-key mixture of acoustic coffeehouse-type material and electronica. 13 tracks and over an hour of music in this vein can be an incredibly difficult listen for both reasons, but I have to admit that a few of the confessions and insights offered here are darkly fascinating.

It’s exceedingly difficult to discuss an album like Derek Webb’s latest without sounding all judge-y regarding the details of the artist’s personal life. I feel like a lot of listeners have a line – whether it’s a tangible one we’re aware of, or an intangible one we don’t realize is there until it gets crossed – where they can no longer support an artist who ends up on the other side of it. Divorce, while it may seem like a mundane occurrence in the eyes of the mainstream, has long been a sticking point for fans of Christian music. Personally, I’ve hated to see artists of faith fall victim to controversy in this area – as much as we want to believe that marriages are God-ordained and they last forever, humans make mistakes that sometimes do irreparable damage, and the trust between two partners simply can’t be repaired. And we generally don’t know the whole story, and it’s not up to us to play armchair quarterback and judge whose fault it was, nor does it make sense to somehow “punish” an artist by not listening to their music when we might be blaming them for something that, for all we know, wasn’t their fault. In Derek Webb’s case, where the dissolution of his marriage to fellow singer/songwriter Sandra McCracken is concerned, we at least know the facts that Derek has confessed to – he was engaged in an extramarital affair, she found out about it, and the two divorced. So he got out in front of the story, admitted to wrongdoing, and (for understandable reasons) decided to lay low career-wise for a few years after that. While I don’t think it’s right to expect an artist to avoid doing anything on an arbitrarily constructed list of “sins” that a listener considers beyond the pale, I will admit that I have a really hard time giving an open-minded listen to an artist once it’s clear that they have profoundly hurt another human being. I’ve never really listened to Sandra’s music, nor do I think I should be required to “take sides” even if I did, but I’ll admit that seeing her as the victim in this situation makes me rather apprehensive about the prospect of hearing the perpetrator’s side of the story, even when he’s quite clearly owned up to his mistakes. Usually when this sort of thing happens in the world of contemporary Christian music, where artists tend to be put on pedestals they don’t belong on, the musician will be considered persona non grata for quite some time, so they may as well not even bother marketing their music to the CCM world if they do try to make any more of it. Derek Webb’s audience was already pretty niche as far as I can tell, with the band Caedmon’s Call that initially made him well-known in Christian music circles having been dormant for years, and his solo albums sort of quietly slipping under the radar in later years. (2009’s Stockholm Syndrome – with its now-laughable controversy over a single use of the word “shit” on a song that was cut from the official, record label-sanctioned version of the album – was the last time I recall him making any real headlines until the affair became public knowledge in 2014.) So when Derek Webb dropped a new album called Fingers Crossed, in 2017, warning us he was now a very different man from the one who had gotten the Reformed theology nerds and the Americana aficionados all excited with She Must and Shall Go Free seemingly a lifetime ago, I really had to wonder who the heck it was for.

Now in case the cover image, on which Derek comes across looking a bit like a drunken sailor posing for a police lineup, hasn’t clued you in, Fingers Crossed is not a happy fun-time album. Webb’s music has always leaned toward the more cerebral side of things, but even on his most challenging work in the past, there’s been a bit of grace and levity, a reminder that God is still sovereign despite our total depravity. Fingers Crossed offers no such respite, because Derek seems to be at a place in his life where, having been severed from the love of his life and the constant presence of his nuclear family, he’s apparently not entirely sure what he believes any more, and he’s more than a bit angry at the Christians who seem to have shoved him out of their social circles, probably due to that same instinct of wanting to side with the victim that I’ve admitted to feeling. It’s an uncomfortable record to listen to, not because I feel personally offended at Derek’s possible rejection of the belief system he grew up with, but because it challenges me to ask myself how I would respond if Derek and Sandra were my personal friends, and now he had done this awful thing that destroyed their relationship, and confessed to it, and he still wanted to be my friend and have open, honest, uncensored conversations about how he was really feeling. That’s what this record feels like – an unfiltered exploration of Derek’s attempt to put the pieces of his own identity back together, perhaps embracing for the first time some aspects of himself that he kept covered up for decorum’s sake as a “Christian celebrity”, documented in musical form for anyone brave enough to pull up a chair and just listen. Continuing with the status quo at this point, and writing songs about the subjects he used to write about, would be disingenuous at best and insulting to the audience at worst. And not making music at all could well mean that some of those personal demons never get exorcised. So Fingers Crossed is Derek’s coping mechanism, with no apparent commercial considerations beyond that. That’s not to say that it’s unlistenable garbage, or that it’s filled with wall-to-wall blasphemy or tasteless lyrical choices just to push the buttons of his former audience. (Maybe in one or two spots, I suppose.) Derek has never sought controversy just for its own sake, but I do get the feeling that he’d rather rip off the Band-Aids and address the obvious questions being asked by whatever minuscule audience is left, rather than fake it just to keep a larger crowd hanging on his words. Regardless, this is legitimately the first Derek Webb album that deserves the “explicit lyrics” tag on more than a single song. Good Sunday school kids, cover your ears, because the dreaded F-bomb shows up in a couple places, as well as the big G.D. at one point, and a few milder swears elsewhere. His use of “whore” in the song “Wedding Dress” fifteen years ago seems downright quaint by comparison, but for the most part, I think Derek’s word choices are an accurate reflection of how he’s feeling, so I’m not offended by any of this personally. I’m much more concerned with what he’s communicating than how he’s communicating it – and at times, that may be the hardest pill to swallow. I’ll have to get into the track-by-track analysis to really explain why this is the case.

While any discussion of what genre of music this is seems to be an afterthought at this point, it’s worth mentioning that the past Webb album this one resembles most is probably 2012’s Ctrl. It’s fitting, because now that I look back at some of the lyrics on Ctrl that puzzled me at the time, I can see how it might have been a confessional record, with the temptation Derek was dealing with at the time (and ultimately fell prey to) encoded in a lot of the dreamscapes described in those songs. The new material is similarly downbeat, mostly based around a mixture of acoustic finger-picking and electronic wizardry, with programmed drums and synths playing off of the stark live instrumentation to give most of the songs a cold, distant sort of feel. Occasionally a brighter melody or more playful bit of instrumentation shows up, but I can’t stress enough that this isn’t really a record you listen to for its entertainment value. Throughout most of Derek’s solo career, he’s relied on more minimal or simplistic instrumentation, as if to make sure none of this got in the way of his ability to communicate through the lyrics. Since Fingers Crossed is entirely about personal experience, doubt, and anguish, rather than serving up little theology lessons in song form, it obviously feels a lot less didactic, though at times there are a few subversive nods to how the Christian radio gatekeepers might have tried to mold and shape his created output in ways that he rather famously kicked against. While his occasional habit of poking the bear is amusing, for the most part this record is a sobering listen. I actually described it as “soul-crushing” after my first listen, and I had to set it aside for quite a while, only coming back to it occasionally, before I really felt that I was in the right frame of mind where I could listen to it without having either a knee-jerk judgmental reaction to something, or just feeling a lot of fear and sadness on Derek’s behalf. I suppose the latter response indicates that I do feel some compassion for his situation, even despite knowing that he seems to have brought it entirely upon himself, because I think it is possible to feel the pain of someone who is the victim of his own self-destructive tendencies, even when that also hurts other people in his wake. He’s decided to make a record before he’s picked up all the pieces and figured out how to move on with his life, and some might say  that’s a foolish and reckless move to make, but I actually appreciate his bravery and vulnerability in doing so. I may not agree with a lot of the conclusions he comes to, but I respect that he’s trying to be as honest as he can about it, and for that, I’m willing to have enough patience to get past my initial knee-jerk responses and dig deeper to hopefully get at the heart of what he’s really communicating here.

But, just as Derek cautions us at the beginning of the album, this is probably going to be a difficult exercise for most people. And he wouldn’t blame you for choosing not to listen. Fair enough – we’ve been duly warned. Now let’s dig in.


1. Stop Listening
As much as I love fourth wall-breaking in music, I figure it’s usually a bad move for an artist to open an album with instructions to the audience on how they should listen to it. But in Derek’s case, he was smart to realize that if he didn’t address the elephant in the room right away, it was probably gonna bug a lot of people. So, this opening track – at least, once it gets past the glowy synth fanfare that opens it up, and the cold, thudding electronic beat and gentle finger-picked acoustic melody kicks in – tries to imagine the dialogue between artist and audience after a perceived fall from grace on the artist’s part. On Derek’s side of things, he’s honestly just grateful that a conversation can take place at all, and he gives the listener an out if it’s too uncomfortable for them to handle: “So if you stop listening now/We can still be friends/If your eyes can see what’s killing me/I’ll need you by the end/But i’ll understand if you stop listening.” The second verse and chorus flip the perspective around, expressing the audience’s disappointment in him, even twisting around the words of Derek’s own song “Wedding Dress” to articulate their concerns about how far gone he might be: “And if you stop listening now/We’ll know we were right/’Cause cash can’t buy a jealous eye/When you’ve betrayed your wife/So we’re leaving when you stop listening.” Even if the music is a bit underwhelming (as it is on most of this project, unfortunately), the lyrics pack a pretty strong punch, making it clear that Derek believes a meaningful relationship can still be restored despite the wide chasm of hurt feelings and differing beliefs that now separates him from the people he’s addressing. But that’s only going to happen if both sides are still willing to hear the other out.
Grade: B+

2. The Devil You Know
The second track, like several on this project, unfortunately reveals the limited scope of the “folktronica” sound that Derek has favored on most of his recent work. The stripped-down acoustic melody is there, and so is a programmed rhythm, but both sides of that equation are a bit dry and never build to much of anything. I find myself wishing he’d go one way with this and emphasize the heartbreak and bitterness he’s feeling by making the song more abrasive, or go the other way and just spotlight a lonely man with his guitar and zero studio tricks. He’s pulling back the curtain a bit on the temptations he faced with this one, admitting outright that the vices which brought him down are now small comforts to help numb the pain: “Women and whiskey are persuasive/At making me forget you/Regret stacked up on grief/Like any existential crisis/You can’t know what the price is/Until you feel the flame.” The song, of course, derives its title from the old idiom “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t”, and I’m guessing that familiar devil that wants to keep breaking his heart was an easier one to deal with than the devil he doesn’t know that goes unmentioned here. What is that unknown devil, exactly. Taken in context of the rest of the album, I’m going to guess it was a sober look at a lot of the beliefs and assumptions he had previously built his life around, leading to a painful deconstruction or outright abandonment of the parts that no longer matched up with his personal experience. At five minutes, this song seems to belabor the point a bit, but I do understand the role it plays in the larger narrative.
Grade: C+

3. The Spirit Bears the Curse
I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a lyrical bait-and-switch as simultaneously clever and cruel as the one in this song. The element of surprise is important here, so I almost hate to spoil it (and by all means, feel free to stop reading and go listen to it yourself if you don’t want me to rob you of that experience). While Derek was never a conventional “Christian music” artist by any imaginable metric, he was known to squeeze a few relatively simple, faith-affirming songs into many of his albums, which I suppose you could consider “worship songs” depending on how you define such things. The language here sounds naggingly familiar – gathering together with fellow believers, calling out to a savior for help and for absolution, that sort of thing, all while a rather standard chord progression on the acoustic guitar builds steadily toward the expected release of a straightforward praise chorus. That chorus never really shows up, though, because it’s all just a tease. As Derek’s voice reaches peak fervency in the bridge, his lyrics sound so similar to a number of Christian songs comparing the presence of God to a state of blissful inebriation that it’s easy to assume he doesn’t actually mean this literally: “Now my knees are weak/My speech is slurred/Oh, the things you shake/Oh, the things you stir/I am calling out the only name/That delivers me from my guilt and shame/Oh, alcohol!” Wait… what? This song is actually about getting drunk, no double meaning intended? Only for listeners who have been conditioned by years upon years of CCM cliches is this devious punchline really gonna land. (And I’m not gonna lie, I’ve enjoyed some of the songs that have used this metaphor in the past – like the David Crowder Band‘s “Intoxicating”, or even Webb’s own “Better Than Wine” – though I think the latter was more of a romantic love song, but I digress.) To anyone else, I’m guessing it’ll just come across as a somewhat bland and overproduced pop/rock song about alcohol. And even though I get the punchline, I’m not entirely sure whether to take it as a ridiculous farce or a halfway serious admission that alcohol is the best friend Derek’s got left at this point. If I’m laughing, I’m doing so with a hint of nervousness in my voice, especially knowing what’s coming next.
Grade: B+

4. A Tempest in a Teacup
“This morning I woke up with a hangover/And a tattoo bandage/And another old song I can’t remember.” Those are the words that greet us as Derek wakes up from a night of drunken worship. They probably explain the choice of album cover. And they indicate that there might have been some regrettable decisions made in his total abandonment to what he once considered a vice. But this isn’t a song about feeling awful and swearing you’ll never drink again – it’s more about the realization that he’s a different person now, and that the slightest of triggers can set off a huge identity crisis that sends him scrambling back to the few comforts he has left. This is the shortest song on the album, the words flowing pretty effortlessly with Derek’s finger-picking pattern, and it actually helps that he’s not confined to a rigid electronic beat here. Since the songs that are built around a programmed rhythm often tend to drag out for five minutes plus, I’m grateful for the occasional one that knows how to be a bit more concise.
Grade: B-

5. Love Is Not a Choice
This track is where things really start to get ugly. Superficially speaking, I’m not at all in love with the dull, stuttering beat that sets a maddeningly slow pace that won’t change or build in any appreciable way for more than five minutes. I realize that Derek’s at a true low point here, and his voice is meant to sound tired and raspy, and the whole thing is supposed to feel like a joyless slog through some extremely difficult emotional revelations, but I find myself wanting the music to make me feel more of his anger or bitterness or fear, or really anything other than boredom. The lyrics are certainly a wake-up call, as he seems to be acknowledging to himself that the love of his life has moved on for good, and he’s making the choice not to make things more painful for everyone involved by pursuing her any further, but he has to admit that his feelings for her are never gonna go away. A lot of songs written by men in this situation tend to beg for the woman to take him back, or try to make excuses for the guy’s behavior, or make flimsy promises never to do it again. Derek’s owning up to his mistakes, and even admitting that he hates the man he became who caused her so much anguish, but there are no false promises to be made here because he knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s over. It’s hard to get through this one without flinching at some of the lyrics, because of how much he seems to hate himself after realizing the damage he’s done: “So I am fantasizing, getting homicidal/Want to kill the man who did this to you/’Cause he’s a thief and killer/A fucking wrecking-baller/He’s driving wild in my rear view.” Those words – and the very deliberate choice to drop the mother of all swears (at least from an American Christian perspective) in there – hit like a ton of bricks because they make it clear that Derek is his own harshest critic.
Grade: C

6. Chasing Empty Mangers
This song, which is basically an acoustic demo track left largely untouched since the day Derek recorded it (other than to add some synths and stuff near the end), might just be the most haunting one on the entire album. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, because it finds Derek reeling from the loss of both faith and family on Christmas morning. The decorations are all up, but going through the motions doesn’t make a lonely man feel any more festive, so he’s drowning his sorrows once again while musing on whether he still believes in this savior he’s been taught all his life came to Earth on the holiday he can barely bring himself to observe. Those who might have cried “Blasphemy!” at some of Derek’s word choices earlier will probably find this song the most upsetting, since this is when he chooses to drop the big G.D. and when he insinuates that the friends who he no longer gets to celebrate this holiday with might just be deluding themselves into thinking that manger’s ever gonna be anything other than empty – to Derek, this is as likely as Santa Claus’s sleigh appearing in the night sky. This is one of those moments where, although in terms of my personal beliefs I obviously disagree with the conclusions he’s coming to, I very strongly feel his pain and admire the bravery it takes to say some of this stuff out loud. The choice of swear words here is once again quite deliberate: “Oh God, what have I done/Without your great permission/Knowing fully of the end at the start/Like a dirty goddamn trick/I either sin as I resist you/Or I do it as I’m doing my part.” The guy seems to literally feel damned by God at this point. His whole life up until now, he’s believed that his salvation and his ability to do good were preordained by good, and now he’s grappling with the question of whether he was never chosen in the first place and the whole thing was just an illusion leading up to a massive fall from grace. We’re getting into some pretty deep questions of freewill vs. determinism here, and those questions have plagued theologians for centuries. And while I don’t think sin and salvation work quite the way he’s describing them here, my gut reaction to this one isn’t to nitpick the finer points of theology, it’s to realize how absolutely terrifying and devastating it must be to grapple with the existential paradox he seems to be facing here. For such a gentle song, the lyrics bear some absolutely horrific implications.
Grade: B

7. Easter Eggs
Another subversive holiday song is up next, and both musically and lyrically, it turns out to be my favorite track on the album. I feel like the mixture of acoustic guitar and programmed elements works best here, because Derek’s actually having a bit of fun with the arrangement this time around – the melody has a bit more lift to it, the percussion has something more to do than just listlessly keep time, and I might even describe the synth effects as “cute”, even if the implications of the song are decidedly not so happy. Here Derek is watching little kids hunt for eggs that they were told by their parents were hidden by the Easter bunny, and considering how absurd it is that the literal crux of Christian theology, that Christ died on the cross and was raised from the dead for our sins, gets taught to kids on the same day. They grow up and come to understand the Easter bunny as a harmless bit of age-appropriate make-believe, but are expected to still take it on faith that all the Jesus stuff is real. It’s easy to take that for granted if you grew up in the church, but I’m guessing if you didn’t, both of those stories seem equally absurd. And now that Derek’s at the point of deconstructing everything he once thought he knew to be true, he has to admit that he now feels like he’s digging for a buried treasure he’s never going to find. (If you’ll allow me to go off on a bit of a personal tangent here: Part of the reason why I relate to this one, even though I still willingly believe in what probably looks like a silly myth to a lot of outsiders, is because I am a parent now, and I’ve been thinking a lot as our kid starts to engage in the fun little holiday rituals, about how to separate the things we acknowledge as make-believe and engage in just for fun, from the things we genuinely believe and want to pass on to her. I know next to nothing about how Derek was raised, whether he was discouraged from asking questions as he tried to sort out tenets of faith from silly little stories, and all that. But when the time comes to deal with my own kid’s curiosity and possible skepticism, I don’t want to be the one who discourages an honest, intellectual response, even if it doesn’t lead to the conclusion I want it to, because I feel like that would just set her up for a bigger crisis later in life.)
Grade: A-

8. The Braver One (For Joanna)
This delicate acoustic song, which for the most part is performed quite tenderly and reverently by Derek, was written for the memorial service of a good friend of his who passed away. I don’t know what killed her, but I get the sense from this song that she died way too soon. Considering that Derek’s own views on God, the soul and the afterlife appear to be in flux, the idea of her moving on into the void was probably especially difficult for him to deal with, and his grief is as palpable here as it was when he sang “Center Aisle” with Caedmon’s Call two decades ago. With her gone, he has to admit that he admires her bravery for being willing to believe the things that are difficult for him to believe, even as she stared her own impending death right in the face. There’s just one problem with all of this – he opens the first and last verse with the mood-killer of a line, “I don’t know what asshole said it’s better to have loved and lost”. I know he intends this as an indication that letting go of someone you’ve loved is incredibly painful, but I’m gonna be honest, I can’t say that’s a word I ever want to hear at someone’s memorial service. It makes me think of someone’s literal, smelly rear end. There’s a time and a place for anger and rude insults to the people who you think have polluted others’ worldviews (and Derek isn’t even really angry at this person; he’s just frustrated at having to admit they were right), and when you’re laying a loved one to rest is simply not that time. It’s the one time on this album where I don’t think the use of explicit language adds anything meaningful to the song.
Grade: C+

9. I Will
Maybe it was just due to the sheer length of the album and the number of depressingly slow songs all piling up one on top of the other, but I didn’t really give this song a fair shake on the first several listens. It just sort of faded into the background for me, and I felt like it was covering a part of the story that had long since become irrelevant. Remember how I pointed out that “Love Is Not a Choice” was not a song about trying to win back the affection of an ex-lover? This song strongly hints at wanting it, and maybe there was one point where Derek thought he had a shot at this. Ironically it may be Derek’s restless desire to tell the truth even when it hurts that kept her at arms’ length, if I’m interpreting this song correctly. He admits that there’s a very good chance he’d just break her heart again if she was willing to trust him one more time, and while I suppose it’s better to be upfront about that than to make the kinds of shallow promises often heard in this sort of a song, it still hurts to hear it. While I’m not thrilled with how slowly the melody to this track unfolds, and I don’t think it needed to be six minutes long (since a handful of other tracks on the album also approach that length and it seems a bit excessive at this point), I do have to say I admire the vintage synth sounds and the way that the percussion slowly builds from the sparse 3/4 beat into something a bit more full-bodied as the song picks up momentum. It’s one of Derek’s better vocal performances on this album, too.
Grade: B

10. Dodged a Bullet
When an album is this long and this uniformly downbeat, there are usually a few tracks that could stand to be cut, and this one would be my first candidate. It’s more of a simple thought expressed in a few short verses than a fully realized song – Derek’s feeling a bit bitter and self-loathing when he thinks of his ex-wife and certain friends who have cut off contact with him, and he figures they must feel like they’ve dodged a bullet, and he can’t really blame them for thinking that way. That’s the entire point of the song. Even though it’s short, the lack of anything further to say makes it a bit tedious, and I feel like there’s a bit of missed potential when some harsh, stuttering percussion sounds come in later, which I’m guessing is meant to represent the sound of bullets being fired, but it just sort of gets spaced out over the rest of the song, and it isn’t heavy enough or startling enough to really drive the message home. There’s a seed of a good idea here, but it needed to be developed a lot further to warrant being anything more than a B-side.
Grade: D+

11. I Am Redeeming This Guitar
While there have been a few stripped-down songs on this record that focus more on the guitar than the synth stuff, I think this is fittingly the only one that is entirely guitar with no other adornments whatsoever. It doesn’t have a particularly memorable melody or rhythm to it – we’ve been in the slow doldrums for so long at this point that I really have to struggle to find a melody that I’d actually end up humming to myself later on, and while I know that’s not really the point, it can make me a bit weary due to the sheer amount of heartache that’s being unpacked here. I feel like Derek’s trying to be altruistic here and point out that if he can’t have his ex back, he can at least love her from afar by wishing her well and seeking to make music that heals instead of hurts, all the while hoping she can continue to hold on to “the things we believed as kids” even if he no longer can. If they can’t go back to their innocent beginnings together, then he at least hopes she can experience some sort of a rebirth of her own innocence and ability to trust. That’s all good, but I have to admit I find the central conceit that he’s the one doing the redeeming simply by writing this song (rather than just expressing a hope that the situation can be redeemed) to be a bit off-putting for reasons I can’t quite articulate. The line “If I can’t have all of you/I’ll take what I can get” also kind of undermines the message of selflessness that he’s otherwise trying to communicate.
Grade: C-

12. Fingers Crossed
At long last, we’ve reached the title track, which is the longest track on the record at a full six minutes, and I feel like this one makes good use of its runtime. In a way, these last few tracks are a bookend to “Stop Listening”, since Derek has found himself back at the table with the person he had originally sat down with for a difficult conversation (whether that’s referring to his ex, to a former friend he might have gone to church with, or to us listeners, it works either way), and he’s pretty clearly laying out the ground rules for their continued relationship: “Just because I fucked up/Doesn’t make me a cross/On which you can hang your sin/And expect to be forgiven.” These are some of the harshest words on the album, but he wants to make it clear that he will not be condescended to and treated as a lost lamb to be brought back into the fold. As we get deeper into the song and the dark, distorted drum beat seems to grow thicker and more full of dread with each passing minute, he challenges us to think about what we’d do and how we’d treat people if the notion of our sins being wiped clean were completely off the table and we had to pay for each and every one of our mistakes: “What if there is no sin, there’s no cross/There’s no them, there is no us/There’s just you, and what you do/And how you pay for what you choose.” It’s a bit of an echo of John Lennon‘s “Imagine” in that sense, though with much darker implications about who each of us would be if we didn’t think there was anyone keeping a tally, only the natural consequences of our mistakes left to play out with no guaranteed immunity. Again, Derek might be coming to a conclusion that I might disagree with and would honestly find terrifying to even consider, but what’s also important here is that he’s shedding aspects of his previous beliefs that didn’t line up. He believes now that he can choose. The theological framework he was coming from before insisted that he couldn’t, and that his entire story was all pre-ordained. So if he’s rejected that narrative, he’s at least taking ownership of his own mistakes instead of copping out and claiming the God or the Devil made him do it.
Grade: B

13. Goodbye, For Now
I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that the final chapter is not going to suddenly tack a peaceful ending on to this story. We’re back to the simplicity of an acoustic guitar for these last few minutes of the album, but lyrically, this may be one of the densest songs to unpack. It’s pretty clear that Derek has made his choice to walk away at this point – you could interpret this as a farewell to God, because he’s not only expressing doubts that the person across the table is listening, but that they even exist. And he’s honestly tired of showing up and trying to have that conversation, and feeling and hearing absolutely nothing. Pretty much every line of this song is utterly devastating, so once again I’m stuck trying to figure out how to feel when I have to admit it’s well written, but the conclusions he’s coming to are posing some pretty heavy challenges to things that I personally believe. It bugs me a bit that there seem to be only two logical choices presented here: “So either you aren’t real/Or I am just not chosen/Maybe I’ll never know either way/My heart is broken.” Does God have to not exist in order for mankind to make its own choices? That’s a really heavy question, and I’m not saying I can answer it; it just bugs me that God and freewill seem to be utterly mutually exclusive in Derek’s mind at this point. Perhaps the most devastating moment, though, is when there are no lyrics at all. Derek comes back around to the chorus after the bridge, and up until this point it’s been a simple repeated line, “So I say goodbye, for now”, but this time he changes it to “So you say”, and his guitar is playing the chorus melody, but he doesn’t sing the response. There’s no one there to say goodbye back to him. There’s a slight silver lining in that the song emphasizes the “for now” part of this goodbye – he can’t say for sure that this is the end of his faith, forever and ever. And the song (and album) suddenly ending on that thought without any musical resolution seems to indicate a “to be continued”. This story isn’t done being written. Maybe he’s holding some faint glimmer of hope that rather than a complete lack of existence, this is just a longer period of apparent silence from God than he would expect? Perhaps I’m reading some of my own personal hopes for Derek into that ending, but the fact that it is open-ended at least provides an infinitesimal amount of solace at the end of a record that has (quite skillfully, I must admit) communicated a man’s utter grief and despair in a way that I’ve strongly felt as a listener.
Grade: B-

Stop Listening $1.25
The Devil You Know $.50
The Spirit Bears the Curse $1.25
A Tempest in a Teacup $.75
Love Is Not a Choice $.25
Chasing Empty Mangers $1
Easter Eggs $1.50
The Braver One (For Joanna) $.50
I Will $1
Dodged a Bullet –$.25
I Am Redeeming This Guitar $0
Fingers Crossed $1
Goodbye, For Now $.75
TOTAL: $9.50



8 thoughts on “Derek Webb – Fingers Crossed: The devil, too, deserves some boundaries

  1. Great review of a very difficult album. I definitely liked it more than you (“liked” is a weird word for this kind of record; I guess the best way to put it is that the music mostly worked for me even where it didn’t for you) but I can appreciate where you had difficulties particularly with some of the lyrics and the lack of change in musical pace.
    “Easter Eggs” is my favorite song on the album as well. “Chasing Empty Mangers” is the one that most hit me most when I first heard it, and it is a beautifully haunting song, although too hard for me to listen to for it to be considered a “favorite”.

    • Thanks for the comment! It sounds like our thought processes were pretty similar in evaluating this album, even if in the end you got more out of it on a musical level than I did.

      Ironically, I think I might have “liked” the record more if it had actually been harder to listen to. Not that I’m a glutton for punishment or I want to be voyeuristic concerning someone else’s misery… but if the music had really matched the level of anguish and confusion communicated by the lyrics in some of these songs, now THAT would have really been something that stuck with me.

  2. I was considering writing a review to document my conflicting feelings about this album, and why I’m still drawn to it even while kind of wanting to ignore it. But you’ve basically summed up my feelings for me right here. Couldn’t put it any better. The album is half “I admire your honesty” and half “dude what is wrong with you?” and that really does seem to be the point. It feels like a valuable document, which I almost wish were somehow being released by someone else I felt more comfortable “supporting”. But that also challenges some of my ideas of exactly what constitutes “supporting” an artist.

    • I feel like if this album had been released by someone else, it wouldn’t be telling this specific story. Unless of course that story was fictional. But then the album wouldn’t quite have the same impact, would it?

      • I worded that quite poorly — what I meant was, I almost want a hypothetical situation where the same album is released, but by a third party. Or, I want it to be released years later after a hypothetical reconciliation of all the difficult issues it’s talking about. There’s something profoundly uncomfortable and confrontational about it. I want the questions it raises to have already been answered and dealt with by someone else. So, mission accomplished, obviously.

  3. I think you worded it just fine; I was probably being overly pedantic in my response to it. Regarding such a troubling story being shared before the author had come to a point of peace or closure, I figure the troubling aspects of it are what makes it authentic, because Derek is documenting a process he’s in the middle of. Sometimes we have to grapple with the fact that not every story wraps up with the nice happy ending (or even an ending we can fully make sense of) that we were expecting. Would it be more responsible, in terms of the message he’s communicating, to wait until he had overcome his current struggle to release the songs he had written in the midst of it? Maybe. But I figure if you had a friend going through stuff like that in real life, and they had to wait until their story had a conclusion you could be comfortable with to share with you what was going on, that would seem unreasonable. While Derek isn’t a personal friend to either of us, I kind of feel like the songs he’s writing are sort of addressing what’s left of his audience in such a fashion – hoping that he’ll be understood even by those who disagree or who take offense to his actions, without him having to clean up the presentation and censor the facts just to make the story digestible to them.

    The last time I can recall having such an experience with a record was U2’s Pop – which is actually now my favorite of their albums. The whole record seems to explore the deterioration of a man’s faith as he becomes disillusioned with the way it’s gotten intertwined with commercialism. (How well that’s communicated is debatable – it’s probably their least popular album for that reason.) It ends with a very troubling lament, “Wake Up Dead Man”, which seems to suggest that God has stopped paying attention altogether. I had the luxury of first listening to that album after All that You Can’t Leave Behind had been released, knowing there was an eventual dawn to come after all the darkness. But it still took a bit of grappling for me to understand where Pop was coming from, and in hindsight, I appreciate it for what it is, while being glad those aren’t the kind of songs U2 continued to record for the rest of their career.

  4. Pingback: What Am I Listening To? – October 2017 | murlough23

  5. Pingback: Had to walk the rocks to see the mountain view: My Top 20 Caedmon’s Call Songs | murlough23

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s