Is Derek Webb a poet or a prophet? Or perhaps just a provocateur? Six years after he launched his solo career, it’s still a little hard to tell sometimes; I’m willing to say that it’s probably a combination of all three, but I’m becoming increasingly cynical about just how balanced the equation is.
Webb got his start with the Christian folk group Caedmon’s Call, a band he helped found and nurture into a fixture of the contemporary Christian music scene, arguably as artistically vital and vibrant as any group to come out of that industry in the last 10 to 15 years. So when Webb said he was leaving to explore different creative avenues, it was a bit of a shocker, but the artist assured us that his differences with Caedmon’s were not personal, or even musical; his decision to leave the pack has more to do with the content of his songs than with the creative angle per se.
We didn’t realize it at the time, but, looking back, it’s hard not to see that gesture as a defining one for Webb, who, five full-lengths into his career, seems to care less and less about the music and more and more about the message.
It wasn’t always that way. His first and still finest album, She Must and Shall Go Free, employed a slightly more rugged, rootsy version of Caedmon’s Americana-tinged folk, and the record was all the better for it: The performances brought grit and urgency to Webb’s crusading lyrics. The guy sounded like he was practically a one-man Reformation, quoting Luther and threatening to upturn the money lenders’ tables as he indicted the false gospel proffered by the then-popular book The Prayer of Jabez — a book he never actually mentioned by name, mind you.
If it sounds a bit like he was biting the hand that had fed him — Jabez, after all, was exceedingly popular in the Christian retail world that had also been fairly kind to Caedmon’s — it never felt like Webb was going out of his way to court controversy; instead, his lyrics burned with a very real passion for the Christian Church. After that, the waters muddied. He abandoned his folk roots for the fractured, melodically-stunted Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-isms of I See Things Upside Down, a difficult and sometimes dour album that felt as though its auteur was more concerned with what he was saying than how he was saying it. He only partially rediscovered melody on Mockingbird, an album of sparse and overly-simplistic folk that sounded vaguely indebted to a much more monochromatic version of Sufjan Stevens.
But if each new Webb album has basically served as an opportunity for him to tell us what band he’s been into lately—except perhaps for the back-to-basics rock of The Ringing Bell—his lyrics seem increasingly bent on courting controversy. Mockingbird was a politically-charged album that wasn’t left-leaning so much as it was vehemently not right-leaning, his exhortations to seeking peace and resisting nationalism no doubt the fodder of much consternation amidst the Christian retailers and the Reformed Christians who make up such a large part of his audience. And then he went and gave the album away as a free download right in the midst of the 2008 election cycle, also penning an op-ed piece encouraging Christians not to vote if they can’t do it in good conscience.
Now comes Stockholm Syndrome, Webb’s highest-profile release since his debut. The album was all the rage in certain sectors of the Christian blog-o-sphere in early 2009, but not because of the music — in fact, no one really has any idea what the music even sounded like, at the time. Instead, Webb’s buzz came from the reports that his Christian label was refusing the release the record, due to lyrical content. And so Webb did what any artist in that situation would be tempted to do: he turned it into free press. Creating an elaborate, nation-wide scavenger hunt in which fans uncovered clues that gradually decoded various bits of information about the record, Stockholm Syndrome became one of the most talked-about albums of the year, despite the fact that no one really knew what it sounded like.
Now it’s here, and I think it’s safe to say: It’s very strange. Not strange as music, mind you — just strange as a Derek Webb album. The folk foundations of all his other records are all but vanished, replaced by an abrupt and utterly beguiling foray into trip-hop and electronic music. Never mind that this stylistic shift is basically without antecedent in his body of work; given that Webb’s albums always seem like a reflection of his listening habits at the time, we might simply assume that he really liked the new Portishead album from last year.
And yet, the impression that the music is simply a vehicle for the message has never been clearer than it is here. It’s not that Webb’s electro-makeover is unconvincing. Working with producer (and Caedmon’s Call buddy) Josh Moore, Webb created a series of dusty grooves and glitchy beats that aren’t exactly cutting-edge, but aren’t the work of amateurs, either; certainly, this isn’t some hasty Garage Band hack-job. Part of it is due to the fact that this music is such an abrupt shift in style, it’s hard not to interpret it as something of a whim. Part of it is that, in the groundswell that built up to the album’s release, all the talk was about its content, never about its actual music, as if Webb was too busy constructing his scavenger hunt to invest any time in discussing the music.
But more than anything, it’s because the record is marked by an irrepressible desire to make a big, important statement — and a controversial one, at that. There are swear words here, but not very many memorable melodies. There are clever turns of phrase, too, but they’re just that — clever, not particularly graceful or poetic. And there are well-intentioned and entirely needed lyrics about various social issues impacting the Church — most crucially, homosexuality — but often, Webb gives into his worst tendencies toward preachiness, making the album feel like a didactic exercise rather than a creative one. The music serves simply as a vessel for Webb to deliver his message, itself increasingly feeling a bit calculated, as if an attempt to top the level of provocation and controversy reached on earlier albums.
And make no mistake: It really does seem as though Webb needs to offend at this point, to the extent that it almost smacks of desperation at times. Surely he knew that his use of the word ‘shit’ would cause a big to-do in Christian music circles, just as he knew that he would get some buzz about his song “Freddy Please,” addressed to the infamous homophobe Fred Phelps. But at this point, isn’t he preaching to the choir? Phelps is a marginal figure whose protests at the funerals of fallen soldiers have made him a repulsive figure in Christian and secular communities alike; his only followers are certifiable nuts. So in writing a song condemning his actions, Webb guarantees that we will nod our heads in agreement, and perhaps even celebrate his candor and his audacity, but we won’t change our minds, because it’s an issue about which we already agree. Essentially, it’s simply free press for a man who thrives on publicity.
That the rest of Webb’s message is, for the most part, fairly agreeable to most of the listeners within his fan base is a fair observation, if not an out-and-out criticism: It is, after all, good to have someone voicing these concerns about the state of the Church. But the songs remain, above all, lessons — not explorations, not conversations, but small sermons that feel carefully crafted to ruffle feathers, or at least to give the illusion of real edginess when not much is actually present. Coming from an artist who used to criticize Christian music for being too preachy, this heavy-handedness is more than a little dispiriting. It makes Stockholm Syndrome feel less like art and more like artifice, and Webb’s provocation like something that might have been better-handled from the pulpit.