Derek Webb’s done a fine job the past few years of being a gadfly, of questioning how a faith is lived out. During the recording of his new album, Stockholm Syndrome, though, he apparently went too far. Webb said a swear, and his label INO wouldn’t release the offending track, “What Matters More”. The two eventually compromised, with INO releasing the album without the song, Webb putting out the full disc through his web site, and Columbia including it as a bonus track on the vinyl release. The controversy has generated plenty of attention for one of Christian music’s top songwriters, but it’s unfortunately overshadowed the fact that Webb has radically shifted his sound and created a very strong album.
“What Matters More” sounds like a track from Thom Yorke’s The Eraser, owing a little to IDM and frosty electronics. Lyrically, the song’s an attack on Christian homophobia and the typical religious approach to homosexuality. His final lines speak against the ability for theological meditation to turn into inaction: “Meanwhile we sit just like we don’t give a shit / About 50,000 people who are dying today”. The line (and probably the expected controversy) allude to Tony Campolo’s idea that people will be more upset with someone saying “shit” than with the social issue under discussion. (As a side note, writer M. Lawrence Key points out that such language isn’t even Biblically unprecedented.)
The problem with the attention given the track (including the 100+ words I just gave it) is that otherwise the song isn’t one of the most noteworthy in a collection of strong cuts. Most important about it is that it’s emblematic of Webb’s sonic shift on Stockholm Syndrome. His work outside of Caedmon’s Call has largely been of an impressive but not demanding folk-rock variety. Here, he synthesizes a multitude of influences (Kid A, ’50s balladeering, synthpop, etc.) while still creating a coherent disc. The fundamental change is the heavy use of electronics, for both beats and textures, and the leadoff “Opening Credits” functions to prepare us for the shift. Songs like “Cobra Con”, “The Spirit Vs. the Kick Drum”, and “I Love/Hate You” reveal the same kind of melodicism that worked so well on The Ringing Bell and Mockingbird.
Of course, for a songwriter like Webb, such sonic experimentation would mean little without strong lyrics to go with the music. Not surprisingly, that’s where Webb really excels. Make no mistake, Webb challenges his listeners from the beginning, whether by questioning theology or faith in practice, or simply through tricky poeticism. The album title refers to the primary theme of the disc, not so much in the sense that we’re abductees, but that people tend to buy into the values and behaviors of those around them.
Some of these pricks of conscience are pointed (at least ostensibly) at the secular world. “Jena & Jimmy”, for example, points out the deceit and vapidity that occurs in a hook-up culture. The title man craftily misleads the title woman as he seeks out only sex (and we’ll get back to sex before long). With a lesser artist, the song could have been a platform for moralizing; here, it’s simply a story, especially effective within the scope of the album.
More often, Webb turns his focus to other Christians. “Freddie, Please” provides one of the most explicit attacks, in this case against Fred “God hates fags” Phelps. It’s well crafted (and with Jesus as narrator), but it’s an easy target. More difficult to target is the contemporary churchgoer, but Webb (arguably playing the role of modern-day prophet) puts his focus on that group. If he sounds aggressive, keep in mind his 2003 “Wedding Dress”, where he calls himself a “whore” for the way he uses Jesus. On Stockholm Syndrome, he’s just calling out the rest of us.
Specifically, getting back to the album title, he’s calling out the things Christians can slip to instead of their faith. “The Spirit Vs. the Kick Drum”, riding a bouncy bass line, points out the ways we want too little, the trappings rather than thing of substance, whether that be “sex without love” or church music instead of the Holy Spirit. The more meditative and complex “The State” grounds itself in Pauline thought and points out our willingness to tie ourselves to worldly government, even at the expense of our freedom and our moral well-being.
Fortunately, the disc never turns into a jeremiad. Webb displays a fully developed worldview here. Stockholm Syndrome, despite how I’ve perhaps described it so far, isn’t merely a Christian talking to Christians on a Christian record. Webb alludes to sex and sexual relationships politically, thoughtfully, and even somewhat casually. These aren’t songs about sex, but they’re songs with an understanding that sex exists and is part of both secular and Christian life. “I Love/Hate You” is one of the most challenging songs I’ve heard about romantic love as simultaneously beautiful, erotic, and damaging. The previously mentioned “sex without love” is just one of a number of quick comparisions in “The Spirit”. “Jena & Jimmy” looks at our flawed ways of seeking sexual fulfillment.
There’s a lot of sex here for a Christian record (and none of it in the form of abstinence anthems, with the possible exception of a couple lines in “What You Give Up to Get It”, in which the “it” is many things), but it’s not about sex. Nor is it about politics, although there’s much that’s political here. It’s also not a social justice record, although Webb repeatedly goes down that road. It’s not about hope or love or religion or faith or theology. What Stockholm Syndrome is — amid its Old Testament-style propheteering, its anti-consumerism, its search for meaning, its dangerous faith in God — is a fully depicted vision, properly complicated, and faithfully mediated through Webb’s Christian lens.
So where can you go from there? In the middle of a complex world, a demanding conversation, political turmoil, and the encroachment of vapid theology? On “Cobra Con”, Webb seeks rest and communion, uttering a prayer: “God rest these bombs / Baptize this road / Lie with us in the bed we’ve made”. It’s cognizant of failure and responsibility, but embracing of peace and grace. If it’s not a cure, it’s a least a treatment for Stockholm syndrome.