I like Derek Webb a lot. He's a truly creative guy, working in and around the fringes of Christian music, a genre that doesn't exactly prize "the artist" often. I met him briefly when he was touring during his first round with Caedmon's Call (a band Webb announced he will be reuniting with soon) and it already seemed he was uneasy with the constraints of the business, frustrated by the limitations of playing in churches and the unofficially-enforced Jesus-per-minute standard. After a very weird time in Caedmon's (his songs seemed either pinned on at the last minute, or on a few albums, Webb didn't get a song on at all), he turned to a solo career that seems to flirt with controversy with each release. His first album used the word "whore" in the lyrics, other albums hit hard on social justice issues. Webb transitioned from a straight-ahead singer-songwriter type to a more experimental performer, although in a generally Yankee Hotel Foxtrot way. In the meantime, Webb gave an album away online, and then, inspired by the experience, started Noisetrade.com, a remarkable way for artists to market their music in the uncertain digital age. It's easy to cheer for Webb. He seems like a man with honorable convictions and a desire for his music to mean something.
Which brings us to Webb's new album, Stockholm Syndrome. Webb's online marketing project leading up to the album and controversy with his label over his use of somewhat banal profanity built a frenzy for its release, and now reviewers seem to be lining up to hand out album-of-the-year honors to Stockholm Syndrome. Notably, culture e-zine Christian Manifesto called SS "one of the most important albums of the last 10 years." The problem is, Stockholm Syndrome doesn't come close to deserving that sort of hype.
Stockholm Syndrome is as enjoyable as any disc full of songs intending to be prophetic is likely to be, but neither the message nor the medium end up being all that powerful. The lyrics on "What You Give Up To Get It" are painfully trite at points. The profanity on "What Matters More" is no big deal, especially for anyone younger than age 50 (which includes essentially everyone in Webb's core audience) and the rest of the album ends up interesting and somewhat thought provoking if you're willing to bring your own issues to the table. Still, "Freddie Please" is a criticism of Westboro Baptist "pastor" Fred Phelps, someone you'd have a hard time finding a defender for, even in the most homophobic mainstream churches. I think the church should do a better job of sorting out our attitudes about homosexuality, too, but this particular song, like most of the album, seemed to be more about Webb scolding his audience for their intolerance.
The unfortunate thing is his audience is likely to assume the song is directed towards someone else - someone not hip enough to pick up the Derek Webb disc. Webb is at his most effective when he turns to the theme of the album's title: that, as Christians, we have become too sympathetic to our captors (the world). A few songs seem to return to that thought, but not quite enough. For every profound moment, Webb goes back into prophet mode, but his reliance on extended metaphor and imagery fails his message, and that's assuming the message is focused to begin with. It's not enough, and at times it seems Webb has become overly sympathetic to his captor named Outrage, forgetting about grace. He's not alone in that camp, however...you could probably count the number of Christian musicians able to bring the balance of the Gospel to their work on one hand, and that's only if you include musicians no longer with us, like Rich Mullins.
The album as a whole reminds me of what someone (I wish I remembered who) said about U2's "Pride": "When you think about it, what does that song tell us about either Jesus or Martin Luther King Jr.? It just evokes our memories of them in a mishmash of imagery to seem evocative and meaningful." The same is true for Stockholm Syndrome, minus the Martin Luther King part. For all the stumbling to try to crown this album as "a force that could topple the Jerichos of modern evangelicalism" (as David Sessions wrote for Patrol), I can't quite figure out what to take away from Webb's work, and I suspect I'm just looking in the wrong place.
Besides the muddled message, what's going to keep Stockholm Syndrome from being one of the "most important" albums of the decade (even if we're limiting ourselves to releases in the Christian genre) is that the sound of the songs themselves isn't as innovative as critics (or Webb himself) think. This probably wasn't his intent, but the influence that I kept thinking of throughout repeated listens wasn't Aphex Twin or Radiohead, but David Gray's White Ladder, recalling a time around the turn of the century when folk type musicians started messing with synths and drum machines. So, on the tracks with programmed beats, there isn't the uneasiness or induced paranoia that comes from a Massive Attack record or the aggressiveness that comes from great hip-hop; just a beat that doesn't add much of anything. The Patrol review throws out adjectives to try to describe the album's sounds, including "chopped" and "screwed", which makes me wonder if the reviewer has ever heard a Houston-area remixed rap album (from which those terms come). Webb might have, but if there's a single moment on Stockholm that DJ Screw would have recognized as derived from his influence, that would be the surprise of my lifetime.
I suspect "Jena & Jimmy" is supposed to have a sensual, sexy feel, but it fails on that front. Slower paced tracks like "The Proverbial Gun" and "The State" drag on without much momentum. It's not like there aren't enjoyable moments, because there are ("I Love/Hate You" is probably one of Webb's best songs to date and "Cobra Con" has a nice feel to it), but overall, Stockholm Syndrome sounds like a moderately hip adult contemporary record. The electronic accoutrements feel tacked on and lack a connection to either the present or future of music. (The programming on the most recent David Crowder Band album felt far more connected to a specific musical intent and aesthetic, for example.) Would I recommend the album? Maybe, as long as you temper your expectations. If you're looking for an album that "deserves comparisons to Ok Computer and Kid A" as John Wofford wrote in his review, you'll be incredibly disappointed.
It's certainly not just Christians that get into this endless quest to crown the next great album. There's something about the internet that encourages that sort of behavior. After all, remember when every music site went nuts for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah? I like the Talking Heads as much as anyone, but it didn't take long for that bubble to burst. Sometime next year, the authors of these glowing reviews will move on to something else, and what was "Derek Webb’s exhilarating, subversive masterpiece [Patrol]" will be consigned to the archives. The fault isn't with Derek, who clearly put a lot of effort into Stockholm Syndrome, with moderately successful results. The problem is with our need to feel validated and to have someone in the marketplace championing what we feel is wrong with Christianity.
I loved Steve Taylor when I was younger, as his albums took on Christian retail, Operation Rescue and holier-than-thou church goers; the same people we jaded kids in the back pews couldn't stand either. [In fact, what does this line from a British magazine's review of Taylor's I Want to Be a Clone remind you of?: "This six-track 'mini-LP' is the most exciting and radically 'prophetic' recording the rock'n'roll subculture has so far presented to the Church." As they say, there's nothing new under the sun.] While Taylor has moved on to other ventures, his catalog of albums which seemed prophetic then are now out of print and largely forgotten. Taylor then, and Webb now, aren't exactly preaching to the choir, but instead headline a pep rally for those frustrated with mainstream Christianity.
Oddly, the same day Stockholm Syndrome hits iTunes, the new David Bazan album arrives as well. While Curse Your Branches doesn't attempt to create a new sonic landscape, Bazan hits a new high mark lyrically, essentially writing a concept album on doubt, with every song aching with a struggle to believe. Bazan turns the spotlight on himself and then on the Christian evangelical ideas of God and truth, which is definitely more difficult to listen to and take in, where Webb (and his laudatory fans in the review pages) just keep pointing at a crowd that, to be frank, probably won't ever hear his words. Maybe it's enough to make those slighted by the dominant paradigm to feel better about life on the fringe, but we can't confuse that with prophecy or the likelihood of real change.