Derek Webb, Stockholm Syndrome
On May 12, 2009, I (along with thousands of people) got an email in my inbox from Derek Webb with the following lines:
"It seems I've finally found the line beyond which my label can support me, and apparently I've crossed it," Webb wrote. "[A]t this point we're not sure when the record will come out and in what form. The majority of the controversy is surrounding one song, which I consider to be among the most important songs on the record … [B]ecause of various legal/publishing issues we're having to be rather careful with how we do what we're going to do next."
This was how Webb announced his new album, or at least announced the controversy that would surround the release of his new album, Stockholm Syndrome.
A few more cryptic emails followed, setting the stage for a long (and sometimes frustrating) viral game. The game was creative and pretty cool—different “stems” of a song were left around the country in various locations and could later be mixed to form a complete song. It was only frustrating that the stems were so short—the furor over the first few stems died down a little bit when it was found out that only 5 seconds of music would be heard at a time. But diehard fans who stayed with the game were rewarded with finding out about a secret show and were the first to hear Webb’s new “inorganic” music.
And the game itself was notable for bringing a J.J. Abrams-level of twisty alternate reality to an album. It raised attention, brought the controversy between Webb and his label into the spotlight and even used the Wikipedia entry on "Stockholm Syndrome." Webb set up secret websites, had a strange RSS feed, used Twitter to fake people out and offer clues, and even had passwords at various points. Overall, the experiment was compelling and a success, drumming up anticipation for Stockholm Syndrome rarely seen for an album in the “Christian” marketplace.
Syndrome was finally released today (physically), though it’s been out digitally in its “explicit” version (more on that later) for quite some time. And the rumors about this album being a departure for Webb were certainly spot on. Almost every song on the Stockholm Syndrome is inorganic and layered with electronic textures; Webb’s voice is frequently filtered through voice software, making it scratchy and more echo-y than on past releases. There are a lot of synths on this record, drum machine and not very many guitars—something fans of past Webb records might find disappointing.
Webb still finds places to mix up the sounds—after all, it’s not like he’s suddenly turned into Moby or anything. “Freddie Please” is a doo-wop rock song that wouldn’t have been out of place at a 1940s slowdance ... except the song is about Fred Phelps (the crazy pastor in Kansas who’s gained noteriety for his “God Hates [Gays]”—substituting a homophobic slur) and asking how he can claim to be a lover of Jesus while being so hateful. “The State” is a slower ballad that sounds like Webb’s been listening to a lot of old Brian Eno records and adding vocals over them. And “Jena and Jimmy,” with its bouncy electro-funk, might be the closest thing Webb ever writes to a Justin Timberlake song.
But as talented as Webb is at melody-making, most people seem to talk about him for his lyrics. And his brash “grace over all/down with law” message is again front and center. “The Proverbial Gun” finds Webb surveying a courtroom scene in his head, and identifying each person in the room as someone worth loving and trying to understand. “Heaven” sounds like an old hymn but makes a stark indictment of how Christians live on earth and turns it on its head: “I heard Jesus Christ was there/ He had a car that's bulletproof/That way everyone is safe/From the man who tells the truth.”
The best songs on the album are ones that are most helped by the new style of music that Webb is interested in. “I Love/Hate You” begins with a Middle-Eastern flute line before using a New Order-like synth line and a quick tempo to provide a backdrop to Webb’s ruminations on love, sex and marriage.
The song that will be most talked about is only available digitally and is the one that caused all the controversy, “What Matters More.” The song is about the implicit (and explicit) homophobia Webb sees in much of the American church. Yes, he says a couple of bad words. But since he’s talking about overt apathy when it comes to the poor or the tragically hateful ways Christians can speak about homosexuality, it’s hard to fault Webb too much for being impassioned enough to swear. With a line like, “if I can tell what’s in your heart by what comes out of your mouth/it sure looks to me like being straight is what it’s all about,” it’s clear that Webb isn’t too interested in showing CCM-appropriate tact.
“What Matters More” is also the best song on the album, so it’s too bad it’ll be left off any purchases from iTunes or physical CDs. It’s got a skittering beat and creative synth blasts, and it perfectly matches Webb’s intensity with its own constant drive.
Overall, Stockholm Syndrome sounds like a transition album for Derek Webb. It’s not his best work, but it’s got some great tracks (particularly “What Matters More”) that really take advantage of his interest in electronic sounds. Some of the other tracks sound a little bit forced into the formula, and come off feeling a little indulgent instead of naturally inorganic. But, of course, Webb’s insightful and incisive commentary on the Church and Christianity is all over the album, and that makes it worth a listen by itself. He might have scared his record label, but we all benefit from a prophetic voice like Webb’s.