07.14.2009

Stockholm Syndrome, Derek Webb

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:41 pm

I’ve been a big fan of Derek Webb for almost 10 years now, from his involvement with Caedmon’s Call through his solo career. Each of his solo albums thus far has had a completely different style to it: She Must And Shall Go Free was folk/acoustic/bluegrass; The House Show was just Derek and his acoustic guitars; I See Things Upside Down was more experimental and had lots of atmospherics and a much thicker texture overall; Mockingbird, as I’ve written about before, has a stripped-down, simple, house-recorded feel; and The Ringing Bell had a classic rock, Creedence Clearwater Revival-type sound. His most recent record, Stockholm Syndrome, keeps the tradition by going in a completely new direction: It’s an electronic album, full of drum loops, synthesizers and lots of fun “blips and bloops” (as Sean Dunnahoe would say)–a sound that he has described as “intentionally inorganic.” Live drums (played by Mckenzie Smith) appear on four tracks; other than that, every instrument on the album was played either by Derek himself or the album’s producer, Josh Moore of Caedmon’s Call.

Derek’s sure to win some new fans and alienate some old ones with this record, not least because of the content, which deals with issues of race and homosexuality. (Derek’s label, INO, refused to release one of the tracks on the album because of some of the content; the preorders available on his website will be the only way to get the CD with that song, “What Matters More,” and the physical CDs which are released on September 1st will have 13 tracks instead of 14.) And the musical style is sure to surprise many who are used to Derek as a singer/songwriter; despite the different styles of his earlier albums, this is surely the biggest departure from what people expect from his music.

Par for the course for Derek, the preorders available on his website all come with an immediate digital download of the full record (although the order volume was so high on the first day of preordering that some people waited more than 20 hours to download it). I downloaded it after things calmed down a bit, and have listened to it a few times since then.

On the first listen through, I wasn’t sure what to think, although I was pretty sure I liked it; on the second and third listens I was definitely sure I did. Electronic music is not something I typically listen to, and so I can’t offer an informed critique of the quality compared to other electronic music, but I like what Derek has done a great deal. The upbeat songs (like “The Spirit Vs. The Kickdrum” and “Jena and Jimmy”) have some pretty rocking grooves, and the slower songs (especially “The Proverbial Gun”) have a unique atmosphere and an emotional power familiar to Derek’s listeners but accomplished in a new way. The first line of “Black Eye,” the first track with vocals after the instrumental “Opening Credits,” introduces Derek singing in a low, gravelly voice we’ve never heard before, along with dissonant and funky backing music; the next song, “Cobra Con,” sounds almost like a Jason Mraz tune with more of a pop/rock feel and some falsetto vocals. “Freddie, Please” was described by Derek on Twitter as an “electro-industrial do wop song about fred phelps” [sic]. And those are just three of the first tracks!

The main thing that I didn’t like about the album was its use of repetition. When I was studying composition at Cal State Fullerton, one of the things my best professor told me was never to write the same thing twice; if you’ve already heard it once, you already know it, so if you write it again change something about it, even if it’s a small thing. Otherwise what’s the point of repeating something you’ve already heard? On Stockholm Syndrome, however, there is a lot of exact repetition, particularly in “The Spirit Vs. The Kickdrum” and “I Love/Hate You,” in which the exact same line with the exact same music is repeated three times with no changes. That rubs me the wrong way, for the reason mentioned above. However, it happens a lot on the album, and I think that it was done intentionally as a stylistic choice. Electronic music as a style/genre uses a lot of repetition musically, and the choice of continuous repetition in the lyrics (I think) was meant to reflect the musical style.

The music itself is not always top-notch–it’s not bad, but it’s not always terribly interesting. There are lots of “blips and bloops,” but most of the time those little details add up to a very simple whole without too much musical complexity. But I think this is intentional as well. At a live show I attended a few years ago, Derek said (in reference to Mockingbird) that you could either have complex lyrics or complex music, but not both, because if you had both they would detract and distract from each other; simple lyrics with complex music, or vice versa, helps to highlight one or the other. (I don’t necessarily agree with this, myself, but it’s Derek’s view.) Derek has always, and especially on his last few albums, been all about deep, thought-provoking lyrics; so I think that he intentionally simplifies the music in order to focus on his message.

All told, this is a great album and I can even see it topping my favorites of Derek’s solo albums eventually. You may see some posts about individual songs in the near future. In the meantime, six different packages of preorders are available on his website at http://www.derekwebb.com/store, ranging from eight to sixty dollars. You can hear the controversial song “What Matters More” on YouTube here and see a live solo performance of it here; and you can also find a press release/review/recap of the release process (which included a crazy country-wide scavenger hunt) from Christian Newswire here.

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