Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Ctrl by Derek Webb

on pop theology, philosophy, theology, culture, pop culture, christianity
by Ben Howard

My first introduction to Derek Webb's music came during my sophomore year of college. I listened to the Mockingbird album probably a few hundred times that year, and maybe a few hundred more since then, in fact I'm listening to it while I write this sentence.

That album and Derek's other work both before and since served as my introduction to politically and religiously honest music. At a time in my life when I had a lot of questions and confusions regarding my faith and my beliefs, Derek's music has always challenged me while simultaneously making me feel like I'm not alone.

Last Tuesday, Derek Webb released his seventh studio album Ctrl and thankfully I was afforded a download so that I could give it a listen.

Ctrl is certainly an interesting and challenging album. Like much of Webb's work it is both intensely personal while at the same time being very political. As the name would suggest the album focuses on the concept of control, or, to be more specific, the illusion of control in modern life.

The album opens with the dissonant sounds of a choir singing Sacred Harp music (a turn of the century a capella musical style that must be heard to be understood) that immediately sets the listener on edge knowing that they are in for something different.

Following the Sacred Harp intro, we are led into the mellow controlled guitar chords of “And See The Flaming Skies,” which are occasionally backed again by the Sacred Harp music. The mixture of the two creates a beautiful, but tense auditory landscape.

This feeling of control-on-the-edge continues into the melancholy, “A City With No Name.” Webb acknowledges this illusory control singing, “you have less control of it, then it has of you.” This song is followed by rhythmic ticking clock/racing heartbeat of “Can't Sleep.” In fact, the first five songs on the album all share this tense control-on-the-edge-of-chaos atmosphere. Each song feels tempered, measured, purposeful, but with just a hint that everything could come tumbling down at any moment.

In the light of this measured, precise, yet teetering musical dynamic, “Attonitos Gloria” feels exactly like the religious experience its name evokes. Possibly the strangest song on the album, “Attonitos Gloria” feels like a compilation of Mannheim Steamroller and Muse, and while that may sound bizarre, I promise you that it is surreally beautiful.

In the wake of this glorious experience of God, Webb dips into the simplest and most hauntingly beautiful song on the album, “I Feel Everything.” The song begins with only a simple acoustic guitar and a stripped down vocal track. The lyrics include a lament of our current culture of consumption and the illusion of control. At one point Webb pointedly states that what he has discovered, “is not control/it is a promise meant to quell my every fear/yet leave me cursed.” The chorus of the song cries out, “I cannot hear because I hear everything/I cannot see because I see everything/I cannot feel because I feel everything.” The song ends with the beeping of a heart monitor that flatlines as the Sacred Harp music kicks back in with a funeral dirge. This life is dead.

Reanimate” picks up with the beeping of a monitor coming back to life as a light acoustic guitar plays reassuringly warm chords. The album finishes with three songs exploring the rebirth experienced once the illusion of control is surrendered to God.

A Real Ghost” embraces the surrealness of this rebirth with lines like, “full lungs/emotions/things I feel I've never felt before.” The final song, “Around Every Corner” is a driving pop song that reads as a redemptive creed, the promise of one freed from the burdens and confines of a life-lived-in-construct.

Ultimately, Ctrl is a beautiful work of art the conveys an incisive critique of technology, consumption and modern life as well as a mode and hope for redemption and recovery from the life in which we've enslaved ourselves.

However, let me warn you that Ctrl is a serious album. It's unlikely you'll put this on during a roadtrip or find yourself singing at the top of your lungs. It's the kind of album you ruminate over, the kind of songs where you sit alone in your room and stare at the lyrics while you listen.

You may very well enjoy this album, but that is not its first aim. It means to challenge you, and if you accept that challenge, it means to lead you somewhere beautiful, somewhere you've never been before.


You can purchase Ctrl from derekwebb.com.

Special thanks to Derek and Brian at Media Collective for making this album available.

Follow Ben on Twitter @BenHoward87.

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