1.9.09

Derek Webb, Stockholm Syndrome

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.

18 comments:

  1. i've only listened to the album twice, so i'm not ready to make any firm opinions yet, but that's pretty close to my first reaction. i was worried when i heard this album would be more electronic because i thought his remix album was pretty hit or miss, but this is pretty different from that so i'm still not sure what to think about it yet.

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  3. Wow, you googled reviews of Stockholm Syndrome and made comments on what they had to say more than you did the album itself. I'm so impressed.

    Whether one likes the album or not, this is poorly written.

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  4. @Kenneth: Elaborate, please. I don't have the patience to do a word count, but to me, it seems most of the post is about the album itself.

    That being said, any publicly released piece of art doesn't exactly exist in a vacuum. Especially with an album that aims to be provocative, the audience's reaction is sometimes as important as the original work itself.

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  5. I think it was well said, Dan. There goes your credibility ;)

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  6. Regarding word count, I look the liberty: very high estimate would say 268 words were devoted to discussing Christian critic response to this album (that's including the Steve Taylor bits). The whole review was 1,509 words. Take out the 137 words introducing Webb and the final paragraph comparing the album to David Bazan's new release (217), and you're still left with 887.

    By my count, about 7% of the review was devoted to third-party hyperbole.

    Not that it matters. One of Dan's points seemed to be examining how Christians respond to albums.

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  7. I missed the heydays of Steve Taylor and only caught up with him on the Liver album, which still rocks. But i spent much of adolescence listening to artists influenced by Steve Taylor (or produced by him or who co-wrote with him). I think many more people have "heard" Steve than have listened to his albums.

    I don't know if this will be true of Derek, but it does feel like he has more influence with other influencers than he does with the church at large. So, while Stockholm Syndrome may one day be out of print and forgotten like many of Steve Taylor's albums, the collective influence of it and Webb's other albums may someday, quietly, subtly catch up to the hype.

    Or not. Damned if i know.

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  8. I think one of the key words here is "scolding."

    I listen to music I enjoy, having not learned the taste for punishing myself through music. I doubt the day is coming when I'll get in my car and decide to play something that scolds me or some unknown audience (the guy in the other lane maybe?) about things I may or may not be doing.

    (Seems like it would make for an awkward concert - tell everyone how great they are for coming, then tell them how they suck. Or the person next to them sucks.)

    You could make an argument that with Stockholm Syndrome, Derek Webb is doing exactly what everyone hates about Christian Rock (and I use that term loosely) - using music as a platform to convert.

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  9. I believe you are all over identifying with your captors.




    I downloaded the album when it first came out. A month later it doesn't have much staying power. I agree with what Dan said musically. However, I suspect I enjoy a few more tracks than he did.

    Some of the slower tracks drag because of the techno beats. The songs might work better acoustically.

    That said, I'm impressed with Derek as an artist. To move from the folk music of Mockingbird, to the Beatlesque Ringing Bell, to a foray into techno is just daring in my book. Stockholm Syndrome wasn't a triumph, but it wasn't a train wreck either. I'll be following his further adventures.

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  10. I'd agree with you Dan. Thanks for the review. I loved Mockingbird, but have failed to enjoy much of anything Webb's produced sense.

    What's completely been frustrating with this album was the promotional campaign built around "controversy" over a lyric taken from a Tony Campolo speech made several years ago. As for the music...I still feel he's at his very best with an acoustic guitar and should ditch the synth sound.

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  11. I needed Steve Taylor when I was 16. I needed someone who "got it" as I tried to survive in a youth group that spun records backwards to unmask the devil and wouldn't let us wear shorts or play cards. I once got in trouble for making a crack about Jim Baker because my Sunday School teacher thought he was "a man of God." Steve Taylor made me feel like I wasn't crazy and alone.

    I haven't heard the Webb album. I don't like much folk music, so I doubt I'll give it a try. But I think it's easy for a lot of us to forget that some kid at a rural church needs to know someone else gets it. No, this album probably won't dramatically affect Evangelical culture, but he might help some people on the fence stay in the Church. Good enough for me.

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  12. This was a great review Dan. Thanks for taking the time and effort to pull this together in such a well written manner.

    As far as the Steve Taylor thing goes, his exhile was pretty much self-induced. Between the Christian bookstores pulling his albums, and labels that wouldn't support what he did, and his own frustrations with that and all the attacks on his work, he just walked away. I would guess that he has enough fans to still be going as a solo artist to this day, if he wanted to. And I totally agree with Nathan's point regarding their collective influence on musicians as a whole. Somebody's got to go first:)

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  13. I discovered Steve Taylor in Jr. High, which... makes me older than Steve Simpson?! ..Wow.

    Steve, this album isn't folk. Mockingbird definitely was.

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  14. Tangent: Regarding "Pride" by U2. yes, it's true that it doesn't say anything profound, but does every song have to be a message song? Sometimes I catch myself drifting over into music snobbery, where I can't just enjoy a tune because I like the way it sounds, and when I catch myself doing that, I slap myself back into submission. Every song (or movie, for that matter) doesn't have to be "important" to be worth a listen.

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  15. Sorry to get off-topic, but one of you guys who has the ability to post a blog has got to do something on this:
    http://eternal-earthbound-pets.com/Home_Page.html

    Not sure whether to laugh or cry.

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  16. @James: I generally prefer my music without an overbearing message, but I feel like "Pride" is supposed to be a big IMPORTANT song (have you seen them play it live?...it's a imagery overload), that doesn't happen to actually mean much of anything.

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  17. Holy cow, James...that cannot be real...

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  18. This is an open letter to Derek and the community. I don’t know who or what Derek is singing about in the song “Black eye.” But, I think I can relate to it. Derek sings about someone being hated. Whoever that person is, I hope they never learn that the song is about them. Can you imagine hearing that everyone hates you and you hadn’t quite figured that out yet? I find it ironic that an artist who sings about how terrible hate is in one song, thinks it is okay to slam someone with hate in the title track. And, I worry about his fans who send hate mail. Hypocrisy comes to mind.

    Derek sings about someone’s privacy being invaded through a key hole. I can relate to that. As soon as I started posting on Derek’s new CD, I started getting really hate-filled emails in my inbox. I thought it was strange and too coincidental. The emails were timed with my internet searches on Derek and my posts. I’ve come to find out that my computer has been hacked. I wonder how many people knew. Not sure if Derek did, but some of his fans certainly knew.

    The CD has been pitched as a battle cry against indifference. Really? Because if anyone knew (including Derek) that computers were being hacked and did nothing to warn the victim- that’s more than indifference. Breaking into people’s computers is against the law. Breaking into people’s cell phone accounts is against the law. This town is filled with white washed tombs and Derek’s CD is the epitome of indifference. See a problem, do nothing to warn or help, tell them they are hated and make some money while you’re at it. It took a whole community of people who knew and, instead of helping, used the information for stalking. If you don’t think that is a part of this town, you’ve been left out of the gossip. It’s not just cruel songs, computers and phones. It’s actively keeping track of people for the sake of following and harassing them. This is the “Christian” music Mecca of the world and it is the most un-Christ-like place I’ve ever been.

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