Derek Webb is often the voice crying the the wilderness. His music wraps up the force of a faith and a generation and, much to the chagrin of caution, releases it with loosely assembled cohesion. And it works. Webb’s music is most powerful when it is blunt and prophetic. Take the phenomenal “What Matters More” from 2009’s Stockholm Syndrome. Webb challenges the Christian status quo, urges Biblical thinking, slips in profanity for emphasis and manages to wrap it into a song that ultimately feels passionate and loving, albeit forceful. This isn’t your parent’s CCM.
Yet as his music has progressed, Webb has begun to reach more for the realms in which Christianity can connect its tradition with the art and beauty in the world. 2010’s Feedback saw Webb step into further experimenting with a fully instrumental concept album based on The Lord’s Prayer. Now, with the release of Ctrl, he seems to be stepping further into the murky haze that lies between music, tradition, truth and beauty.
Ctrl is by no means bad. It is, however, quite a jolt from both the wavering hybrid instrumentals of Feedback and the electronica of Stockholm Syndrome. It is almost — just almost — a return to his earlier work, like She Must and Shall Go Free. Yet what similarities there may be, this is a different beast. From the opening of the album and its slow swelling and slightly chaotic choir through songs with slow, lilting vocals over the repetition of a plucked guitar (“A City With No Name,” “I Feel Everything,” “A Real Ghost”), and the Muse-like area rocking of “Attonitos Gloria,” Ctrl could have been poorly constructed and muddled. Somehow — and I’m not sure quite how — it isn’t.
This abstract collection seems to hint at something more. There is slight distortion layered over Webb’s voice. It is hazy and faint, as if he was recorded on a cassette tape; similar to, but not as severe as, Lennon’s vocals on “Strawberry Fields Forever.” The distortion is strange and haunting at first. Is the mastering bad? That would have been ridiculously unlike Webb.
Then there are the crazy shifts and missteps in the music itself, even in individual songs. “Pressing on the Bruise” is an excellent example and is possibly the key to unlock the reasoning behind Ctrl. It is a mess of very typical alt-rock guitar is layered over hammer-constant percussion, all backed with synth and a bit of dramatic choir interspersed in the monotony. As it picks up, the percussion falls off beat a little, and between lines seems to lose its place. The slips jar you out of the song. You listen closer, then give up as everything seems normal, but it only falls apart again a few seconds later. You can say a lot about Derek Webb, but not that he is someone who allows sloppiness on his albums.
Webb has arranged Ctrl so that it has much more in common with Feedback than with Stockholm Syndrome. Although it takes a bit to hash out, Ctrl is a conceptual project built to question our addictions to technology. His usual prophetic cries are traded for a message hidden in the themes, the music and the mixing. The distortion on his voice, the amalgamation of styles and the hidden problems are all there to point us towards what he is trying to say. Fitting, as the problems technology cause us seem to sneak up unexpectedly. In a way that is characteristically Webb’s, Ctrl moves us to think about the way we live and the things we believe. As it closes with “Around Every Corner,” a song heavy on synth, Webb turns us to look forward. He calls for us to “commit [ourselves] to start/ looking around every corner.” We may be tied into our technology, but he wants us to know that if we work, there is hope. It may not slip onto any “Best of the Year” lists, but Ctrl is certainly one of the most important albums you’ll listen through.