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Like Neil Young and Rich Mullins before him, Derek Webb has matured into a fearless artist who delights in betraying expectations, and making art that explores detours, departures and roads less traveled. Take his latest album, Ctrl, which features Webb picking up his acoustic guitar after a long layoff from the instrument. For Webb fans who know and love his past work with Caedmon's Call, his return to unplugged sounds should come as welcome news: They adore this latest record from start to finish.
That said, you'd better brace yourself. On Ctrl, Webb places his acoustic axe in the service of his most ambitious project to date. It tells the tale of an unnamed character that melts the lines of physical and virtual realities until it's hard to tell man from machine, the digits from the DNA.
Here's how Webb explains it: "It's an album about one man's desire for something he cannot have because it isn't real, the journey he goes on pursuing it, and the costs of that journey. But essentially, 'Ctrl' is both personal autopsy and cultural observation about how we use technology to try and control our lives, and my concern that it could ultimately have more control of us."
Webb co-wrote the story behind Ctrl with two of his closest friends, fellow Caedmon's Call alumnus Josh Moore (who co-produced the album, along with Webb's Stockholm Syndrome and Feedback albums); and Allan Heinberg (a writer and executive producer for ABC's Grey's Anatomy, 2006-2010). Yet the emerging story is so much Webb's, fans can be forgiven for mistaking this work for a 21st century confessional.
"It's easily my most personal record, which is why it had to be written inside a fictional narrative," Webb says. "In fact, it's fiercely personal. I'm an early adopter of every new technology that comes down the pike. My own inability to put it down, to have rules and say no to it concerns me. But it’s just as much cultural criticism. If you look around, you've got whole families walking around, bumping into each other, because they're all staring into little screens."
Webb has a point. Computers and the Internet have taken such a hold of our lives that we profess to have "friends" in social media whom don't know; "connect" with people with whom we never speak; and ignore each other in public as we press against smartphones and jam earbuds into our ears. Rather than dive deeper into relationships, we burrow into a high-tech substitute: a hovel we can "control" when the real world feels too unstructured and intrusive. As Webb puts it, "People are much easier to deal with when you can refuse their direct message as opposed to when they are knocking on your door."
To bring his thesis to life, Webb constructed Ctrl like a play divided into three acts. “I've never made an album like this before -- an album built entirely around a story,” he says. It took him more than two years to plan and research, whereas recording it was a sprint. Once Webb entered the studio, Ctrl was cut in four days, mixed in five, then mastered and shipped off for pressing before his record label even had a chance to hear the finished product. The album came out so quickly, in fact, Webb hadn’t fully digested what he’d created before he received a copy himself.
“The day it came out, I remember my throat still felt sore from singing the last vocal,” Webb says. “That's how close to it we were. We had no time to obsess or second-guess or go back and fix things. There just wasn't time. We would try and get great performances, and move on. I was just as surprised at the resulting sound as anyone, and I'm still getting familiar with it.”
Webb need not worry about how things turned out. Ctrl at turns sounds terrifying and tight, soulful and transcendent. The magic comes as a direct result of Webb pitting primitive, organic sounds against programmed, looped textures as his character sinks further into his dystopian fever dream. "The juxtaposition of primitive and future was part of the basic framework from the beginning," Webb says.
To that end, Webb makes abundant use of Sacred Harp singing (also known as shape note singing), a form of acapella choral music that took root in the American south. But he morphs those four-part harmony singers into digitized samples that take on the tremulous quality of ghosts without a home. To find just the right samples, Webb and his team on Ctrl combed through hundreds of records spanning 50 years of sacred harp history.
Repurposed for Webb's narrative, the shape singers yield some of the album's most chilling moments, as when they hijack the dreamy acoustic song "Blocks" with less than 90 seconds to go. They also provide a rousing-yet-restless counterpoint on "Pressing on the Bruise," which recalls early T. Rex with its sinewy meld of acoustic guitar pulse and stripped-to-the-bone rock drumming. "I don't know what it is about Sacred Harp music, or how it accomplishes what it does emotionally, but I’m entranced by it," Webb says.
Webb's singing also adds to the emotional wallop, as he tried something else brand new: He sang all the songs on the album, in their exact album sequence, in one 36-hour stretch. The exhaustion you hear by the closing track is real, and it reflects the fray he felt as his vocal cords began to splinter.
"The 36 hours included six hours of sleep, so you get a sense of the journey I'm going on and the exhaustion I'm feeling. That was just another way of burying meaning; the character at the end is exhausted and has been on a journey. I felt more connected to the content of the songs through that experience."
When Webb finished singing, "It was 2 in the morning, and I'd given it everything I had. I was wrecked. I'd been singing for 12 or 14 straight hours. But I thought, ‘This feels right. This is exactly how I should feel.’"
Webb also speaks of another surprising sacred influence in making Ctrl—the art and architecture of cathedrals. Just as Bob Dylan once spoke of being more influenced by particular paintings than songs in creating some of his best work, Webb looked to cathedrals as creative touchstones.
"Churches have done a really good job of telling you a story 50 different ways, 48 of which you're completely unaware of," he says. "When you walk into a cathedral, you might step on a particular type of stone, or look at glass artwork that's abstract and you can't understand, but has a story. Then you walk down the aisle and hear a particular type of music, and that's telling a story—until the point when you're sitting down at your pew, and you've already heard the story for an hour in 10 different ways, unknowingly."
In the same way, Webb utilized every musical and lyrical commodity on the album to reinforce the narrative behind his character's pilgrimage.
"On Ctrl, we wanted to use every means at our disposal—every means we had—to communicate the story, from the sounds to the arrangement," Webb says. "Even with the tempos and keys of the songs, if you squint your eyes hard enough, you'll find Easter eggs all over the album providing addition story content. They're hidden everywhere."
If that sounds like unusual attention to detail and craft, Webb isn't fazed. "Upsetting convention? That's never a concern of mine," he says. "I make a hobby of it, actually. As long as I'm calculated with my risks, I'm more than willing to take them. If I was more concerned that everybody understand and love what I'm making, that would be one thing. But I make records for me. Ultimately, I'm trying to do things that are creatively satisfying."
Still, Webb enjoys the fact that Ctrl, with its futuristic sound and shape, also marks a homecoming for longtime listeners who've stayed away for a while.
"I'm already hearing from folks online who felt alienated by the last few records, and they seem to really love this one," Webb says. "So this is an opportunity for people who jumped ship somewhere along the way to find a way back on board. It's a re-entry point."
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Derek Webb Albums
- Our Father In Heaven | 3:24
- Hallowed Be Your Name | 2:29
- Your Kingdom Come | 3:33
- Your Will Be Done On Earth As In Heaven | 7:28
- Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread | 2:52
- Forgive Us Our Debts As We Forgive Our Debtors | 3:14
- Lead Us Not Into Temptation But Deliver Us from Evil | 6:22
- For Thine Is A) The Kingdom B) The Power C) The Glory Forever and Ever | 6:28
- Amen | 0:59
Stockholm Syndrome (Bonus Track Version)September 2009
- Jena & Jimmy
- Heaven | 4:27
- What You Give Up to Get It | 3:13
- American Flag Umbrella | 4:34
- The Spirit vs. The Kick Drum | 3:05
- Jena & Jimmy
- Opening Credits | 1:32
- Black Eye | 2:53
- Cobra Con | 2:58
- Freddie, Please | 3:51
- The Spirit vs. the Kick Drum | 3:05
- The State | 4:29
- The Proverbial Gun | 3:41
- I Love/Hate You | 5:01
- Becoming a Slave | 5:21
She Must and Shall Go FreeNovember 2008
- Gospel / Crooked Deep Down | 5:09
- The Church / Studio Chatter With Band | 6:45
- Nobody Loves Me | 4:22
- She Must and Shall Go Free | 3:46
- Take to the World | 4:04
- Nothing (Without You) | 2:50
- Lover | 4:35
- Wedding Dress | 5:19
- Awake My Soul | 4:11
- Saint and Sinner | 4:37
- Beloved | 5:00
One Zero RemixJanuary 2008
- Lover | 4:28
- Mockingbird | 4:04
- Better Than Wine | 4:46
- A King and a Kingdom | 2:59
- Ballad In Plain Red | 3:53
- I Hate Everything (But You) | 4:01
- Wedding Dress | 5:21
- Medication | 4:23
- Take to the World | 3:41
- Rich Young Ruler | 3:48
The Ringing BellMay 2007
- This Too Shall Be Made Right | 3:45
- This Too Shall Be Made Right | 3:45
- The End | 1:34
- The Very End | 3:02
- A Love That's Stronger Than Our Fear | 3:01
- I Wanna Marry You All Over Again | 3:16
- I Don't Want to Fight | 3:12
- Name | 3:38
- Can't Be Without You | 3:33
- I for an I | 3:22
- A Savior On Capitol Hill | 2:01
- Please, Before I Go | 2:46
- Love Is Not Against The Law | 3:08
- Mockingbird | 4:13
- A New Law | 4:44
- A King and a Kingdom | 3:00
- I Hate Everything (But You) | 4:20
- Rich Young Ruler | 3:53
- A Consistent Ethic Of Human Life | 0:23
- My Enemies Are Men Like Me | 5:14
- Zeros and Ones | 3:49
- In God We Trust | 4:33
The House ShowApril 2005
- Dance | 5:27
- Lover | 4:20
- Intro to Wedding Dress | 4:55
- Wedding Dress | 4:38
- Take to the World | 3:43
- Faith My Eyes | 5:53
- She Must and Shall Go Free | 3:16
- Intro to Nobody Loves Me | 5:56
- Nobody Loves Me | 3:51
- This World | 3:24
- Every Grain of Sand | 4:48
- Intro to I Repent | 3:31
- I Repent | 4:05
- Intro to Dance | 5:50
I See Things Upside DownNovember 2004
- Nothing Is Ever Enough | 5:46
- Lover Pt. 2 | 5:48
- What Is Not Love | 5:05
- I Want a Broken Heart | 5:11
- Better Than Wine | 4:45
- The Strong, the Tempted, & the Weak | 5:52
- Reputation | 4:24
- I Repent | 4:28
- Medication | 4:57
- We Come to You | 8:07
- T-Shirts (what we should be known for) | 4:33
- Ballad In Plain Red | 4:41