The Devolution of Derek Webb

Few songwriters have had more impact on my life than Derek Webb.  I distinctly remember the first time I heard “Center Isle”.  I didn’t know that songs could do that to you: give you all the slow sweetness of the personal nostalgia to a place you’ve never been with people you don’t know, and hit you like a Mac Truck.  I remember sharing his “Standing up for Nothing” with some of my fellow high school Freshmen, and they all just sat there like all the air had been sucked out of the room.

And it just got better. 40 Acres ushered in “Faith My Eyes”, which is probably my favorite of Derek’s songs, and a song that never far from my favorite playlists. I remember seeing Caedmon’s Call in concert right before Long Line of Leavers, showing up early to see Derek play guitar by himself for about an hour and half before the show started.  During that show the band would turn over the stage entirely to Derek for a couple of songs; and I distinctly remember him unveiling “Can’t Lose You” there.  Judging by all the times I’ve played “What You Want” and “Somewhere North” I didn’t think he could ever lose me either.

Derek’s career would reach a watershed in 2003 when he released his first solo album, She Must and Shall Go Free.  The album, recorded during his engagement, is an intense reflection on the idea of marriage as it relates to the Christ and His Bride, the Church.  Musically reminiscent of a backwoods Sunday service, and lyrically commanding Webb left us with several passionate and profound songs. Chiefly mentioned of these is “Wedding Dress“, the chorus of which is “I am a whore I do confess, but I put you on just like a wedding dress, and run down the isle to you.”  I’m more personally fond of “Lover”and “Beloved” (yeah, I know it sounds redundant, but hey its theme album!) and “The Church”.  One of the most resonant ideas on the album is that the Church communal is His Bride, and not individual Christians.  “You cannot care for me, with no regard for her, if you love me you will love the Church.”

She Must and Shall Go Free was followed up by I See Things Upside Down and the EP The House Show, which contains more preaching than singing.  When I heard “I Repent“, which appears on both albums, I immediately ditched the other song I had been planning on playing for church for it.  The song was received as it was intended; as a “thank you” for a needed slap across the face.

There’s only so much loving that can be delivered in the form of a punch in the face though, and Derek began to make a habit of it.  One of the throw-a-way songs from I See Things Upside Down is “T-shirts“; a cheap criticism on the easy target of Christian sloganeering.  More disappointing is Derek’s 2005 Mockingbird, a rather unthoughtful apolgetic for disliking America and George Bush.  Also, with the exception of the  title track, the album is musically uninspired and has disappeared into the recesses of my coat closet.

For the first time Webb seemed angry, and self righteous.  His usually provocative lyrics culminated this time in the entirely unhelpful anthem “Love is Not Against the Law“.  Sure I couldn’t disagree with Webb, but I couldn’t agree with him either, mostly because he wasn’t saying anything very coherent or meaningful.  The album didn’t strike me as controversial, thoughtful, or even interesting, just basically vapid. Other than the title track, the album gets pretty much no play time from me.

2007’s The Ringing Bell is perhaps only a little better of a sample from the same vein. Webb, in usual outcast tone, sings of the inability of children to learn when you “stack them like lumber” and don’t feed them.  I can indulge these sort of heavy-handed obvious statements if they build to a legitimate payoff, but when the album was over, no payoff came.  I was officially unenthusiastic, and I didn’t think much about Derek Webb and his career.

That is, till Stockholm Syndrome hit the airwaves: or rather, when it didn’t.  But that story will have to wait for another day.

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