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.