by Al Boyce
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Derek Webb's latest album, CTRL, is both a departure from his previous work and a return to it.
In a soul-searching narrative that spans 10 cuts, the singer/songwriter makes a couple of artistic leaps. He abandons the edgy lyrics that often placed him at odds with all sides on controversial topics like gay rights and a complacent Christian church. And he relies less on the electronic and sometimes discordant music that may have alienated listeners in albums like "Stockholm Syndrome."
Webb acknowledges the transition in recent posts on Twitter:
"Were you a fan of my early records but I lost you in recent years?" he wrote. "I accidentally made a record you might like again."
Webb continues, "And for those who have been evolving with me over the last few years, thanks. Seriously. Letís keep moving."
Moving has never been a problem for the former Caedmon's Call band member who struck out on his own by performing "house shows" before audiences numbering literally in the dozens. His albums have progressed from pure acoustic guitar to an electronic blend that had some fans scratching their heads.
Webb alienated some by using "profane" lyrics in songs like "Wedding Dress" and "What Matters More?" Others have chafed at his stands on issues ranging from gay rights to church hypocrisy.
But CTRL turns the accusing finger squarely back on Webb -- and on any listeners willing to subject themselves to its scrutiny.
"'CTRL' is about one man's desire for something he can't have because it isn't real, his journey pursuing it and the costs of that journey," Webb tweeted recently.
In the song "Can't Sleep," Webb paints of picture of quiet desperation, of a life where phantoms lurk just outside normal senses; where
"Everything I am all goes up in flames
"What I spend my life to build is ripped down every day
"Anywhere the light can reach, is nowhere I am safe."
But also lurking is an elusive path to redemption, a path that leads through divine revelation in the song "Attonitos Gloria" (attonitos is Latin for stunned, stupefied, dazed.)
"Where there were two, You are in me and I am in You
"My soul is caught, pleasure eclipsing a second thought
"Can't take my hands off of You, must take my hands off of You
"Oh, attonitos gloria!"
Webb, with the help of Josh Moore, deftly weaves snippets of a capella hymns from the "sacred harp" tradition throughout the album. The effect can be jarring at first, like a slightly off-key Greek chorus. But the voices form an interesting counterpoint to the evolving sense of change and escape from conventionality throughout the album.
Ultimately, "CTRL" walks us through a kind of death and into a new life that looks a lot like the place Webb might be writing from -- a place where causes don't fit on bumper stickers, where good conscience prevents us from justifying ourselves or questioning the justification of others.
There is a kind of peace in the album's beautiful song, "A Real Ghost."
"A soft touch. A deep cut.
"Thinks that can restore your sanity.
"A real ghost, without clothes
"Things I never dreamed that I could be
"I closed my eyes. I felt no pain
"I wished I could be born again
"To my surprise I woke to find it done
"Now all my questions have found their answer ... here."
And perhaps the most overtly theological message in "Blocks:"
"I don't want the body, if I can't have the blood
"Don't need a body, if I can't have your love
"I just want love."
The final cut, "Around Every Corner," paints a picture of a man resuming life with a new set of tools.
"I'm backing into a love affair with this life that's mine
"Never again the man I was. Mine's a brand new mind."
And for the casual listener who might be tempted to adopt the vision without counting the costs, the album concludes:
"This no place for a civilized man.
"This is no face of a civilized man.
"So don't you follow me. No don't you follow me."
There is so much to "CTRL" that it takes several listens to become comfortable with its musical nuances and message.
Then listeners might be surprised at how much they resonate with both.
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