Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Unprofessional Music Review: Derek Webb's Stockholm Syndrome

Apparently the long fight between Derek Webb and his record label, INO Records, has reached a conclusion. No sooner had I decided his album would never be released than I got an email from Webb stating that his new album Stockholm Syndrome was available for pre-order and immediate download (even though the album doesn't officially hit until Sept. 1). Being the loyal Webb fan that I am, I grabbed it up and want to share what I've heard with all of you.

First, for those unfamiliar with the controversy, here is what I have been able to ascertain about the album's controversial release. I should initially mention that Webb is no stranger to controversy. When his first solo album came out, some retailers refused to carry it because of the song "Wedding Dress," where he introspects: "I am a whore I do confess / I put you on just like a wedding dress" in reference to being covered by Christ. Some people apparently think "whore" is an inappropriate word.

Anyway, it has been a few years, but on May 12th, Webb sent the following to those of us on his email list:
"It seems I've finally found the line beyond which my label can support me, and apparently I've crossed it...At this point we're not sure when the record will come out and in what form. The majority of the controversy is surrounding one song, which I consider to be among the most important songs on the record …. Because of various legal/publishing issues we're having to be rather careful with how we do what we're going to do next."

The rumor was that Webb had written a song about the christian church's treatment and ostracization of homosexuals, and in the context of the song had used the truly forbidden "s-word" (all of this turned out to be absolutely true). Considering it too much for the label to handle, they refused to release the album without its being censored and Webb refused to release the album without the language, since he deemed it necessary for his artistic vision. Both Webb and INO were at an impasse, it seemed, until today when the news that the album was available for pre-purchase and download. Apparently, the album is now available in two versions: Webb's original uncensored version, and INO's cleaned-up retail version.

So how is the album? In my opinion, it is his finest work. Being a rock-n-roll man myself, I was a bit put off by the clearly experimental and electronic direction Webb has employed for this album. I'd almost call it a purely pop album if it didn't have so many splashes of Radiohead/Wilco-esque experimentalism to it. It took a complete listen through the album for me to be comfortable with this directional shift, and now I like it. Alot. Interestingly, the album veers between two seemingly distinct sounds - the digital and the analog - and marries them together very coherently.

A good example of this is the song "What You Give Up To Get It," where the digital drums initially launch the song into its full-blown beat before the hard-hitting bass guitar hits the mix. The production on the bass is such that you can almost hear the fingers snapping the bass strings, reminding you that this something beyond electronica. From time to time during the song you will be in the nitty-gritty drum-beat and then suddenly the song is awash in shimmering synths without sounding like a retro 80s throwback sound. Meanwhile, some of the songs struck me as being more hip-hop sounding. For example; track two is a song called "Black Eye," and I could swear the production sounded like it was done by famed DJ, Madlib.

So the album is experimental, in terms of Webb's back-catalog. But what are we in for lyrically? Well, thematically speaking, Derek is still a protest songwriter. By my own estimation, 10 out of the 14 songs on the album are protest numbers. The themes that he tackles are varied.

In "Freddie Please," Derek sings as a deceased homosexual watching a certain hateful reverend from Topeka protest at his funeral, lamenting, "Freddie Please/Why do you tell me you love me/When you hate me/Freddie Please." The same topic is up for discussion in "What Matters More" when Derek condemns the modern evangelical obsession with homosexuality: "You say you always treat others like you wanted to be/You must love being hated for your sexuality." This is the same song where Derek utters the terrifying "s-word," which was the source of so much controversy for his label. I'm not really interested in dialoguing on the whole question of whether profanity is ever acceptable in art, because I've already tread that ground several times before. However, if you're interested in someone's opinion that I happen to agree with, you can read someone else's post on Jeff Wright Jr.'s blog.

Webb also tackles the issue of the Christian and the state on the song "The State," where he laments the evangelical agenda attempting to marry church and state in an unholy matrimony. Webb seems to be saying in the song that people used to appeal to their neighbor's sense of morality and persuade them on the level of conscience, but now people try to pass laws enforcing goodness and morality. "There were no eyes/Up in the skies/Looking down into my bed/There was no government/Without our consent/That was the day before/I married my conscience to the state."

On "The Spirit vs. The Kick Drum," Derek deals with a cavalcade of contemporary problems in the church. On "false fire" in the church service:
I don't want the Spirit/I want the kick drum/I know how it works, so I'm not dumb/Like sex without love/Like peace without the dumb/I don't want the Spirit/You know I want a kick drum"

On contemporary hopes that God does, in fact, grade on the curve:
I don't want the Son/I want a jury of peers/Like lies without the truth/Like wine without the fruit/Like a skydive without the chute/I don't want the Son/You know I want a jury of peers"

On the love of God's benefits over the love of God himself:
I don't want the Father/I want a vending machine/Like heaven without gates/Like hell without flames/Like life without pain/I don't want the Father/You know I want a vending machine"

My opinion is that Derek Webb's songwriting has never been wiser or more tightly focused. I know that many in the church will be offended by what Webb has to say and by the way that he often says it, but he is dealing with a very conservative and very stuffy bunch of people who take a lot of shaking for them to wake up.

On the personal side of things, I am simply excited to have a theologically Reformed, politically libertarian singer/songwriter out there with whom I can consistently agree in nearly every controversial area and be entertained by. I hope there is a lot of interaction in the church because of Derek's album, and my hope is it will create more light than heat.

You can get the album from Derek's website.


  1. Thanks for the review, Adam.
    We appreciate Webb and are interested in what he's up to, so thanks for the thoughts and update!

  2. I'm really trying to like this new one. I think I do, but it will take a little longer than the other ones...

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  4. Jared, I've also read The Politics of Jesus; in fact, I have a copy of my own. I think the book fits nicely with the two kingdoms theology, though I did not follow Yoder all the way in his pacifism.

    My characterization of Webb as a libertarian (lowercase "l") comes from the fact that when I met him I referred to him as a calvinist libertarian and he made no attempt to correct me.

    Any chance Hauerwas was at the Duke show? That would be pretty sweet.

  5. Oh, and also he endorsed Ron Paul for President, and so I presume he is not as a-political as Yoder and Hauerwas claim Christians are supposed to be. This is also part of why I think of Webb as a libertarian.

  6. I'm liking the album musically, but to be honest the lyrics just aren't resonating. Maybe I would feel differently if I were immersed in the kind of Christian culture that Webb has a problem with, but being in pretty secular surroundings most of the time I'm not tracking with the rebellion.

    And frankly, I think he's a few years behind the curve politically on this too. Speaking out against the Christian Right hit it's peak in 04-05, when people were still reeling from the election. With Obama in office and the balance of power pretty well shifted, I hear a lot less of this these days.

    I personally would prefer less irony and more honest expressions of faith. But I suppose I can grant him an album to blow off some steam.

  7. Thanks for the thoughts, Dan. I sort of feel the same about the topics being behind the curve.

    I also would appreciate more sincerity and less irony, as well. Of course, Derek has always specialized in talking this way and sermonizing on stuff that drives him crazy. Good stuff.

  8. Interesting you bring up Yoder and "two kingdoms." There's a vigorous discussion happening here:

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  11. Jared S.,

    You're right about my mischaracterizing Yoder's theology as fitting with the two kingdoms theology. Back in my pacifist days, I was looking for a theologian who believed in the scriptures and was a total pacifist. I heard about Hauerwas in Time magazine and decided to start reading him. I was particularly impressed by his comments following 9/11 and started reading a lot of interviews with him where he repeatedly recommended JHY's The Politics of Jesus, at which point I got that book, as well as Hauerwas' A Peaceable Kingdom.

    I think that my misunderstanding of Yoder's political beliefs are a combination of myself overgeneralizing and of myself simply not understanding Yoder's overall point. But there's another problem: to me, what Yoder and Hauerwas are saying is borderline incomprehensible. If I have read Hauerwas' Peaceable Kingdom and Yoder's The Politics of Jesus and still don't understand what they're saying, then either I'm just too simple-minded (I try), or their theology is too prolix and dense for a person of average intelligence to digest.

    That is my biggest complaint about their theology, and its why I gave up trying to figure it out.

    So in the end I mentally decided to summarize what I could understand from them as saying that Jesus' kingdom is not of this world, and as Christians we are not to take part in this worldly kingdom (I am aware that 2K doesn't teach this, either).

    Now maybe you can explain to me what I've been missing in Yoder's theology.

  12. Actually, Jared S, I think I am going to revisit some of my notes from when I first read through The Politics of Jesus. I'll be doing that over the next few weeks in some of my new posts, so I'd welcome input from someone who seems to actually understand Yoder and Hauerwas.

  13. Adam, did you buy the version with the 60 minute documentary? If so, is it any good?

  14. I did get the one with the 60 minute documentary. Honestly, it depends on if you're a fan. I really really like Derek, so I thought it was great. It was just basically footage of Derek and Josh working on the album and smoking, drinking beer, and working on the lyrics.

    It does include, in the context of the video, a couple of what I would call music videos for some of the songs. But they're nothing elaborate; they're just Derek singing the songs into the mic. Like I said; I loved it, but it's only for fans. Some people would just be like, "This isn't a documentary; it's just video that they shot while making the album." Maybe I should have mentioned this in my review as well.

  15. Thanks. Yeah, I'd be interested in buying it if it was an actual documentary with a thesis of some kind. But if it's just random footage I'll pass.

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  17. Jared,

    I'll look at my copy of With the Grain of the Universe, as I do have a copy of my own.

    Also, is "his ridiculously expensive blackwell companion to Christian ethics" the same as The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics? Because I do have a copy of that book, and the first five chapters do appear relevant. I read this some time ago, but I tried to read it too quickly and got nothing out of it.

    The other book by Hauerwas that I have is A Better Hope, but I haven't even cracked the spine on that one yet.

  18. On "Freddie, Please," I think that Webb (at least at certain points in the song) is singing from the perspective of Jesus, not a deceased homosexual: "The stone's been rolled away / but you're picketing my grave / for loving the things you hate." "How could you tell them you love me / when you hate me / Freddie, please."

  19. Matt,

    I'm not going to say you're wrong. That's an interesting way of looking at the song... And it seems to make sense, both ways.

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  21. Thanks for the help, Jared.

    I would appreciate any interaction with my new series, which is basically me reading through The Politics of Jesus and interacting with it. I'm not looking for debate really, so much as clarity, so I'd especially enjoy your thoughts or corrections where they are due.

  22. I know this comment is a bit late, but I feel like I've had a chance to listen to the CD several times, and I didn't see any comments about the following.

    Honestly, I am having a very hard time enjoying the CD. Musically, it is my favorite work of Derek's yet. I think it shows his musical genius better than any of the others (not to mention that the production of the cd is great). However, I can't get past an entire work being negative.

    My wife made the comment, "Derek just seems to be hating on the haters. He has become exactly what he is protesting." After listening to the cd several times, I have to agree with her. Christian protest is often needed and hard to hear, but I don't think it should come in a "drive-by" fashion. In this cd, Derek seems to "hate" and that's it. There's no picture redemption.

    If a non-Christian listens to this cd, he is not taken to Christ in any way, shape, or form. Rather, in my opinion, he is just given another reason to stay away from the church. With all its flaws, the modern church is still the body of Christ. Even our critiques should keep that in mind...

    So, some people may say the CD is intended for the church... Well, I still believe the church needs to be taken to Christ as well. I can't see the benefit in listening to a cd that only focuses on only what's wrong with no picture of redemption. Derek is very good at pointing out what is wrong with the church, but there must be an answer, and in this album, he never gives the answer: Christ.

    For that reason, I think this is my least favorite of Derek's albums. I can't listen to the cd and be encouraged in any way.

    just my 2 cents...

  23. Jonathan, thanks for your thoughts. I don't really feel the need to respond, because what you're saying is valid, I think. It's tough, because on the one hand you could argue, "This album should be balanced; it should have a positive message and be polemic," or you could argue, "This album should just be positive." I guess since the music is so upbeat and fun (for the most part), it makes the sour grapes easier to handle.

  24. Thanks, Sara! We appreciate the kind words!

  25. Hey Adam,

    Sorry to be a "drive-by" commenter... (as it's been a while since I was last on here). I just read your response.

    Personally, I think the album's upbeat tempo (which makes the negative message easier to swallow) is part of Derek's message and particularly part of his criticism. He seems to be criticizing the church of giving a message in a positive manner, while the heart of the message is reatlly death and hell. For example, the song "Heaven" is a light, dancing tune that speaks of a false heaven - one that may, in fact, be hell. I think Derek's using irony as part of his indictment of the church.

    Anyway, I wouldn't argue that every album needs to be "balanced," but my criticism is aimed at a Christian artist putting out a work that is in one sense a complete work, while offering no vision of hope. An album is like a book; it has a beginning and end and contains a sense of completeness. Such a work with no vision of Christ doesn't seem to be a Christian message, particularly when done in such a public manner.

    So, while it seems that we agree, I thought I would air my grief once more. I am terribly saddened that an artist who at one time was so good at expressing the love of Christ has turned to complete criticism, offering no reason for hope or rejoicing.

    Anyways, thanks for the post in the first place.


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