This one comes to us as a collaboration between Todd Brewer and DZ. Enjoy:
I have been looking forward to reviewing Derek Webb’s Stockholm Syndrome ever since his record label deemed it too controversial to be released this past May. Derek has moved further and further toward the outer fringe of Christian music with each successive release, and it is a trajectory which continues here, thank God. That is, the new record finds him embracing his role as provacateur/prophet once again and without apology – which would be far less compelling if it weren’t coupled with his undeniable gift for writing beautiful songs that resonate with real experience (both in and out of the church), cutting through our defenses.
As the album title indicates, and as the brilliant opener “Black Eye” confirms, Derek feels that the Church has been taken captive and, like St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians, he is not happy about it (Gal. 1:9). So Stockholm Syndrome is full of the biting criticism that we have come to expect from Derek, the sort that veers on one side toward full-blown prophetic outrage and on the other, sanctimonious finger-pointing. This means that, like all of his solo records (but perhaps a little bit more so), Stockholm Syndrome is heavy on “challenging” content and short on the comforting stuff. Which is sort of a shame, since no one sings about the Gospel more stunningly than him (“A New Law”, “Lover”, “This Too Shall Be Made Right”, to name just a few). It would be a totally exhausting listen, if it weren’t wrapped up in such blatant tunefulness and the occasional smirk.
Before we get to the lyrics, the production deserves a mention. Derek’s musical restlessness is on full display here, as he and collaborator Josh Moore commit 110% to electronic sounds. If you don’t like synth-pop, or if Radiohead’s In Rainbows puts you to sleep, odds are you won’t enjoy the new direction. But if blips-and-beeps-and-beats get you going, you’ll be happy to hear that the less safe they play it, the better. I would go so far as to call “Cobra Con”, a balls-out hip-hop track, one of the musical stand-outs. Seriously. And then there’s the ebullient synth-pop single (about date-rape, I think…) “Jena & Jimmy” and another of his majestic modern hymns, “Heaven”. And no, it doesn’t sound like they’re “trying too hard” – in fact, I have to confess I was surprised at how true it all rings, that almost without exception the laptops work to their advantage, giving the record a seductive energy unlike anything else he’s recorded.
But what is Derek trying to say this time around? In the controversial (and absurdly catchy) “What Matters More”, he questions the priorities of the church – sexuality, or feeding the poor – pointing out how, despite all the rhetoric, most evangelical moralism these days is merely skin-deep (who could argue with that?!). In “Heaven,” he describes a paradise where Jesus is held captive and comfort is withheld from the afflicted, a sad-but-true portrait of the Gospel in tension with The Church. “Freddy, Please” finds Derek adopting the Jesus-voice to plead with Westboro Baptist pastor Fred Phelps to relent with his hateful epithets. As always, one admires Derek’s courage, and if he occasionally comes off as heavy-handed, it’s easy to excuse – he has always had something to say, and that’s why we love him.
The Good News does get an airing, albeit a somewhat muted one. “The Proverbial Gun” and to a lesser extent “American Flag Umbrella” both speak of justice that is counter-intuitively founded upon mercy and forgiveness. It’s unfortunate that neither song boasts one of his more inspired melodies. And while there may not be as many lighthearted moments as on The Ringing Bell, he still delivers a sweetly deceptive love song with “I Love/Hate You” and rides quite the boogie-down groove on “The Spirit Vs. The Kick Drum”.
Stockholm Syndrome does lack some of the personal warmth of previous albums. And if the sterilized production is anything to go by, this was intentional, sort of the polar opposite of last year’s (amazing) Ampersand EP. Here, instead of speaking plainly, Derek prefers to obscure himself with sarcasm or irony or characters (see “The State”). If he places himself anywhere, it’s behind the judicial bench, giving the record a tone that’s more indictment than existential appeal – the song “What You Give up to Get It” being a welcome exception. Of course this is not necessarily a bad thing – in fact, creatively speaking, the lyrics here are generally very adventurous/interesting. There’s just a definite tradeoff in terms of heart-on-your-sleeve connection.
Or maybe it’s that I no longer find his perspective as inciting as I once did – in the past even the preaching-to-the-choir moments got my blood pumping. This time around, I cannot help but suspect that my lukewarm reaction to the more “controversial” pieces on the album may mean that somewhere along the line, I diverged from his intended audience. Which does not mean that Stockholm Syndrome isn’t another daring album from Derek Webb, full of inspired songwriting, strident statements and some great performances (his singing is better than ever, btw). It is, big time! Just that, remarkably, it is the first Derek Webb record that I have connected with more on a musical level than lyrical one.