“Oh God, what have I done/ without Your great permission/ knowing fully of the end at the start/ like a dirty g-ddamn trick/ I either sin as I resist you/ or I do it as I’m doing my part/ so all my empathy/ to Judas and the devil/ they were yours as much in light as in the dark.” -D. Webb, “Chasing Empty Mangers” from his new album “Fingers Crossed”
Usually I fancy myself as a wannabe movie reviewer or jot down thoughts of books I have read but I figured I would venture into a music album review. There aren’t many musicians I have followed the entirety of their career (especially 20 years) but Derek Webb is one of the few. Originally, I stumbled across Webb as one of the lead singers (along with Cliff and Danielle Young) of the band “Caedmon’s Call” in 1997. I was 17 years old and was about to be connected to a love of folk music. Growing up, Simon and Garfunkel was a staple but as a zealous Christian teenager, I was excited to hear a “Christian” band explore the folksy sound.
That first self-titled debut still holds a place as a life soundtrack at the end of high school and beginning of college. Same with their followup “40 Acres” (although this was a college release for me) which seemed to cement them as the ultimate Christian college band. “Caedmon’s” plugged in a little bit more for their third album “Long Line of Leavers” and then did the cliché contemporary Christian music thing of releasing a worship album “In the Company of Angels”.
Many of us Evangelicals who were college-aged latched onto them. Hell, I saw them 8 times in my collegiate years whether in Indiana (where I went to school) or driving to Ohio, Illinois, and even Liberty University in Virginia which was the last time I saw them (April 2003) and it actually was not a very good show. They opened for “Jars of Clay” and at that point, Webb had left the band (he would reunite with them later for the albums “Overdressed” and “Raising Up the Dead”).
Of course, Webb departed from Caedmon’s to pursue his own solo career. The inaugural album was “She Must and Shall Go Free” and this is still a well-regarded folk rock album in the Christian music community. The launch was immediately met with criticism and some Christian retailers not stocking the album because in the song “Wedding Dress”, Webb calls himself a “whore” and a “bastard child”. These Christian retailers apparently have never read the book of Ezekiel contained in the Bibles they stock on their shelves. I digress. “I See Things Upside Down” followed as the second record which found Webb offering criticisms of the Evangelical subculture (“They’ll know us by the t-shirts that we wear”) and blasting celebrity pastors (the song “Ballad in Plain Red”).
Lyrically, Webb often was among those who existed at what seemed like the forefront of what Christianity Today, Time Magazine and others labeled new Calvinism. For any listener, it is not difficult to find rather blatant statements in Caedmon’s Call songs and in the early Webb solo records of God electing people, humans being unable to do anything good without divine help (the Caedmon’s song “Thankful” for example), and other ideas that could, at least loosely, be traced back to John Calvin. I mean, here is one line off Caedmon’s “Long Line of Leavers” album: “You’re an army in a horse / And you have taken me by force / All the freedom in this world could not resist /The sweet temptation of your sweet elusiveness.” (the song “What You Want”) This one lyric almost encapsulates all of the 5 points of Calvinism either directly stated or implied.
As his solo career continued, Webb took on more social and political issues starting with “Mockingbird”, then “The Ringing Bell” which I consider his weakest solo effort and also the rather fun “Stockholm Syndrome”. The Christian faith was a definite thread in these more politically-charged songs. On “Stockholm Syndrome”, Webb tackled slavery (“Becoming a Slave”), the civil rights movement (“Jena and Jimmy”), LGBTQ rights (“What Matters More”), and immigration (“American Flag Umbrella”). All of this would be followed with “Ctrl” which is a very underrated record and “I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry and I Love You.”
The third solo record “Mockingbird” featured the 2005 song “A King and a Kingdom” which asked Christians to rethink *which* kingdom they should ultimately belong too. The song had these lyrics that some may find eerie in their potential premonition: “But nothing unifies like a common enemy / And we’ve got one, sure as hell / But he may be living in your house / He may be raising up your kids / He may be sleeping with your wife / Oh no, he may not look like you think.”
There are also songs on his first solo record that resonate with the current life situation of Webb being that “She Must and Shall Go Free” is almost exclusively about the church being the bride of Christ. As a matter of fact, Webb has publicly commented about this on his Tumblr account: “the tone & spirit of the songs i’ve written over the last decade or so have sometimes been called ‘prophetic,’ a term that i’ve worn with extreme discomfort. but it turns out my songs have been eerily prophetic in my own story…there has always been some measure of distance between me and the content of my songs. there’s a sense in which even the most confessional of my songs, like ‘wedding dress’ or it’s more recent sibling ‘heavy’, felt like they were about someone else. so, the accidentally prophetic sting of those songs is especially acute and painful in light of my great failures. songs like those have never been more difficult to sing, but i’ve never been more grateful to have to.”
The Tumblr confessional brings us around to Webb’s latest album, “Fingers Crossed”. The personal events that inspired this album came to public light with the announcement that Webb and his wife, Sandra McCracken, were getting a divorce after 13 years of marriage. The statement read: “While we both acknowledge our own human sinfulness, Derek has taken full responsibility for the events which led to this decision.”
Further clarifying on Tumblr, Webb confessed: “the truth is, i cheated. i betrayed the trust of my wife. i betrayed the trust of my family, my friends & my community. and i betrayed the trust and support that many of you have entrusted me with for many, many years. what started as a brief, inappropriate, and quickly confessed connection with a very old friend evolved quickly into something more serious, which was hidden from spouses and friends. it continued in secret for a matter of months, was eventually discovered, and set into motion the consequences that i will now live with for the rest of my life. or, more simply said: i was a fool. i believed lies, which led me to tell lies.”
With “Fingers Crossed” released on September 29, 2017, Webb has commented on social media that the album is about two divorces with one, of course, being from his ex-wife and the second divorce being (potentially) from his faith in God (i.e. the Christian faith). The new record is, not surprisingly, sad with a regretful melancholy from start to finish but many songs also contain Webb’s signature provocations and a listener can sense an underlying fury to a lot of the work. A fury that Webb turns on himself but also seems to direct at God.
“Stop Listening” seems an appropriate opening track introducing the new Webb to his fan base. The lyrics imagine a conversation between Webb and his long time Evangelical Christian fan base where he gives them permission to stop listening if they want too. The second verse has the fans responding, “and if you stop listening now/ we’ll know we were right/ cause cash can’t buy a jealous eye/ when you’ve betrayed your wife.” A wink from Webb as those same long time fans will recognize the “cash can’t buy a jealous eye” a misquoted lyric from his first solo album.
In “A Tempest in a Teacup” he describes himself in new terms “it’s an honest to god ironic rebirth/ but it’s a tempest in a teacup/ a verdict with no judge/ it’s nothing and it’s everything to me”. Irony (or what many of his fans may declare to be tragic irony) surmises a lot of the songs on the record. “Love is not a choice” seems to find Webb wrestling with the end game of his Calvinism: “Love is not a choice/ cause I’ve chosen not to love you anymore/ and I don’t have a voice/ that a heart can hear/ when a heart knows what it wants.”
“Love is not a choice” winds up winning the award for being the darkest song on the record (believe me, it certainly has competition). Surveying what he did to his family, Webb sings: “oh my god/ I came to just in time to watch it burn/ gasoline on my hands and a grave lesson learned” (“grave lesson learned” yet another self-referential throwback lyric to the 1997 song”Center Aisle”). He continues: “so I am fantasizing/ getting homicidal/ want to kill the man who did this to you/ cause he’s a thief and killer/ a fucking wrecking baller/ he’s driving wild in my rearview”. Of course, that man is himself.
“Easter Eggs” seems to use the tradition of hiding eggs on the holiday morning as a metaphor for faith in general. “but us kids have a thought/ that mom’s been making it up/ so our hearts won’t break like Easter eggs.” Later he sings, “see, our daddy left/ I never even saw his face/ but mom insists that he was really real/ but we look just like her/ immaculately made/ the truth well-hidden just like Easter eggs.”
The first time I heard the intro to the song “I Will”, I thought my playlist had switched over to Phil Collin’s “I Can Feel it in the air tonight” (a song I actually don’t own) with the 80s sounding, slow beat synthesizer. Webb here cries out to God that he wants to be taken back to the beginning of he and his ex-wife’s relationship where he has no shame and no regret.
Toward the end of the record, we find the title track “Fingers Crossed” awash in synthesizers and ramping up the intensity even more than it already has been. “Just because I fucked up/ doesn’t make me a cross/ on which you can hang your sin/ and expect to be forgiven.” The final verse finds Webb again perhaps letting the audience into his new thoughts on spirituality: “what if there is no sin, there’s no cross/ there’s no them, there is no us/ there’s just you and what you do/ and how you pay for what you choose/ fingers crossed.” These lyrics first struck me as one of the biggest tells as to where Webb may be at spiritually. The act of crossing one’s fingers signifying random luck or a wishful thought that has no weight to really change anything may be analogous to what he now thinks of religious faith.
In an interview on the “Inglorious Pasterds” podcast, Webb opened up about the song actually stating that there is a triple meaning. “Fingers crossed” could indeed mean crossing one’s fingers and hoping for luck. It could also signify deception where someone would tell or promise you something to your face while crossing their fingers behind their back. Finally, according to Webb, the phrase could reflect classic pictures of Jesus crossing his fingers and holding them up in the air. A plea for help being directed toward God. He is ambivalent about a final meaning to the song (as most artists would be) but it is fascinating to think about the lyrics through these various lenses.
The album closes with “Goodbye for Now” which doesn’t conclude anything. There are no final explanations or answers found here. Even the music at the end of the song does not end on common or predictable chords. “I still believe in love/ like I believe in just war/ I think it’s possible/ but maybe just not anymore.” He again continues singing about the divorce from his wife and loss of faith in God with both of these topics so intermingled it is sometimes hard to know which one he is referring too. “I’ve been looking for the one I lost/ and for eternity in the wrong places/ so either you aren’t real or I am just not chosen/ maybe I’ll never know/ either way, my heart is broken.”
For Evangelical fans of Webb, this will certainly be a tough album to digest thematically. For those who have been through divorce or a spiritual crisis of some sort, they may find some solace here. No matter what one thinks of the ideas Webb takes on with this album, it is his best and feels like a substantial artistic achievement in his career.
Call the record a haunting provocation that is eerily beautiful and will certainly further those age old discussions about why people can so strongly connect with art that is nakedly about someone else’s pain and grief. Webb has a bundle of references to drinking and being hungover on this record including a track that sounds like a modern worship song until he cries out for alcohol at the bridge (“The Spirit Bears the Curse” which I think is the weakest song on the record). However, the despair may be oddly more intoxicating while listening. Like an imprecatory psalm or the author of Ecclesiastes trying to get a handle on any kind of sense this fallen world can make.
I wish Webb to find peace with God and peace with his family situation. As he sings on the second track “The Devil You Know”: “Good things and bad things always mingle/ no stories are simple.” One cannot argue with that.