so if you stop listening now
we can still be friends
if your eyes can see what’s killing me
i’ll need you by the end
but i’ll understand if you stop listening
(Derek webb – stop listening)
I’m not really following the American ‘Christian music’ scene at all (I’m just waiting for a new psalters album…) but Derek Webb is a songwriter and musician that I have been listening to since my late twenties. Especially the ‘mockingbird’ album is a personal favourite, and it will always remain one. I’ve always liked his songwriting, his wrestling with hard questions, his honesty and his voice.
And now there’s a new album, ‘fingers crossed’, an album ‘about 2 divorces’ as he said somewhere on facebook in which he wrestles with losing his marriage and his faith. Musically this might certainly be his best, and his voice has never sounded better, but it’s not really easy listening…
Check it out for yourself here on his website. It’s available on vinyl too, which might be a good idea if you like the album and want to support Derek. It certainly must be music that sounds a lot better from vinyl than from electronic format.
So how’s the album itself? Let me start by saying that Derek Webb proves himself a superb songwriter once again on this album. His semi-electronic arrangements work better than ever here, and the atmosphere he conjures are incredible and in line with what he’s trying to communicate. Unlike his ‘Stockholm syndrome’ album where the experiments with all kind of electronics led to a bit of incoherence on album-level this one works very well as a whole, with a lot of musical consistency.
It’s a really good piece of work, with intelligent songwriting, well-crafted lyrics and interesting arrangements that work well to convey the feelings of what he’s struggling with. The songs are also performed well, Webbs guitar-playing and singing are at a high level here. His voice has never sounded this intense.
A real artist is someone who can channel whatever they want to communicate through their art, and Derek Webb is definitely a good artist here.
i still believe in love
like i believe in just war
i think it’s possible
but maybe just not anymore
so i say goodbye, for now
(Derek Webb, goodbye for now)
But what does he communicate? The ‘double divorce’ aspect of the album is very clear in almost every song. Descriptions of the loss of his faith, and the loss of his marriage, his own infidelity and the world around him that has fallen apart. The painful thing is that it seems that the main thing left from his own former (reformed) Christianity is a deep sense of his own total depravity. To be left with mainly that in the divorce is a very bad bargain I must say.
Some of the songs are really hard to listen to just because he is such a honest and almost exhibitionist songwriter, who shares a very painful reality that he’s living now throughout the songs, while he has separated himself from all things that were central to his life before. It must take some bravery to make a ‘coming out’ album like this in the American scene. I can’t imagine what it must be to do such a thing, it must be very hard to fall out of an entire universe like that. A universe that is completely consistent in itself, and getting increasingly worse I must add. The way parts of American fundamentalism have embraced a man who has no concept of truth at all (after decades of railing against ‘postmodernism) alone would create more cognitive dissonance to me than I might be able to bear if there wasn’t a certain ocean between us. So when it comes to the Christian subculture it might have been a divorce with a partner that’s falling apart and never was what it promised to be. I can understand that such a separation might be the only way to keep your sanity. (see my blog posts The American situation as a crisis for my faith and farewell, online American Christianity here)
And still… In spite of being a very well-crafted album this is not music I’d listen to much. Quality and artistic excellence isn’t the only reason why one listens to music. There must be some kind of positive reason why I will listen a certain album and song and not another one. There must be a certain resonance… (which is the reason why a lot of people like abominable music that’s happy and easy to digest, and why terrible dumb pop music is always topping the charts.)
“women and whiskey are persuasive
at making me forget you”
(the devil you know, Derek Webb)
It’s not really healthy for me to feed myself energetically too much on secondhand desperations that aren’t mine. I’m married, and far from the American dechristianiation, and I’ve never seen or encountered women as a temptation (I prefer them as friends), and neither do I have his very special relationship with alcohol. There’s not much I gain from listening too much to this album.
Why would I keep listening to a song like ‘the spirit bears the curse’ for example, well-crafted as it is. It’s a very clever song that subverts the whole Christian worship cliché lingo into a song of adoration to alcohol? Yes, it’s smart and witty, and it would have a lot of effect in a live-show, it works as a bit of cabaret even. When you heard it once the surprise is gone. But having this song stuck in my head, with a chorus of adoration directed towards the wondrous deity of alcohol is not what I want.
And here we are with the problem of a piece of art in which someone is very able to channel his demons very successfully…
These are not my demons…
I do have enough demons of my own already… But there’s a lot of people elsewhere who must share these demons, and for those who go through a similar deconversion experience -which will be a lot of people, the dechristianiation of the US is certainly at hand- I suppose an album like this will give a lot of recognition and consolation.
The very personal lyrics of the first and last song make me feel like it’s wrong to stop listening to this one, but that’s just how it is. There is something perverse in our audience/listener system and the asymmetrical pseudo-relationships it gives, especially for the artists that pour out to everyone but may end up alone in the end. But realistically I can’t do anything from here.
I’ll still listen to ‘mockingbird’, and maybe to this one too from time to time.
But I can’t share your demons.
Peace to you Derek.
Shalom to you in all its aspects I mean with that.