Derek Webb, 'Ctrl'
It should be clear from the first song on Derek Webb's new album ctrl that he's trying something completely different. After a few seconds of ambient noise, the album opens with an unsettling burst of choral singing sampled from a choir in Alabama. Harsh and otherworldly, with a hint of digital manipulation, the sound of the voices cuts like a razor. They're a shape-note choir, a loud, abrasive chorus of mostly untrained voices singing a Charles Wesley hymn called 'Idumea'. Written in the late 1700s, it was arranged for the Sacred Harp songbook in 1844.
After a minute or so the choir fades and, over a simple programmed backbeat and his own nylon-string guitar, Webb sings the next few verses of the hymn in his own high, clear melody:
And am I born to die?
To lay this body down!
And must my trembling spirit fly
Into a world unknown?
It's a hymn about the final judgment, and as Webb's guitar and backbeat continue, the choir returns for the apocalyptic final verse, singing lyrics about sounding trumpets and fiery skies. The effect is a startling—and really weird—musical conversation that spans three centuries.
Webb and producer Josh Moore (who also produced Webb's 2009 album Stockholm Syndrome) use the same sonic palette for much of ctrl: take one straightforward guitar-and-voice folk-pop tune, add programmed beats and synths, sprinkle in Sacred Harp choral samples. Sometimes the samples are integrated fully into the song, like "Pressing on the Bruise", where Webb essentially trades verses with the choir over a laid-back groove. Elsewhere they provide sonic texture, elevating the spastic "Attonitos Gloria" to moments of unexpected joy. Still elsewhere full choral verses are added as interludes between songs, as if commenting on what we've just heard. Nearly every instance that choir pops up is jarring, and occasionally it comes barreling out of left field at you with the surreal violence of a David Lynch film.
Chances are, you'll either really dig this stuff or you really won't. Full disclosure: I really dig it.
It wouldn't work if the songs weren't some of Webb's best. He has a gifted ear for melody and language, and in these songs he's stripped his songwriting down to those essentials. For instance, the lovely, lilting melody of "Blocks" rides over a gently swelling arrangement as Webb discusses love and control, culminating in one of his best lyrical hooks: "I just want love / and I would do anything to get it". Then comes a burst of choral dissonance that underscores just how chilling that sentiment is. It's the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot approach: the tension between straightforward, grounded songs and sonic experimentation is what makes the album work. Webb and Moore are using those shape-note singers as the chili pepper in their chocolate mousse.
But as fun as this all is to analyze, my first experience of the album was raw and visceral. The clash of sounds--the very old with the very new--hit me in the gut. It stirred up deep fears about being a Christian in the digital era, grasping for eternity and tradition amidst the distractions of the present. One song is about insomnia; another might be about internet pornography. The narrator of "I Feel Everything" describes himself as
a body overwhelmed and lying still
a casualty of knowing what I want and wanting what I know
Time will tell, but I think that personal element might make ctrl Webb's most political album. He's always been a better preacher than pundit; when I've been frustrated with him in the past it's because he's settled for preaching to the choir. By contrast, in ctrl he points the finger directly at himself—critiquing culture by examining the reflection of it he sees in the mirror. And the freedom he finds is harsh, intrusive and wholly other.
Waked from the trumpet sound
I from my grave shall rise;
And see the Judge with glory crowned,
And see the flaming skies!