“‘Ctrl’ is about one man’s desire for something he can’t have because it isn’t real, his journey pursuing it, and the costs of that journey.”-Derek Webb on Twitter
As someone who began listening to Derek Webb in 2004, shortly after the release of his second album I See Things Upside Down, I can say with confidence that Ctrl marks yet another evolution in Webb’s music, drawing upon the best of his earlier acoustic work and the recent electronic tinkering of Stockholm Syndrome and Feedback. At least on the surface, Ctrl should avoid most of the controversy that tends to follow Webb around wherever he goes, as it is bereft of any profanity or overt political statements; however, if you like your Derek Webb a little controversial—as I do—there is plenty of challenging material on Ctrl, the least of which is deciphering the album’s story. Even taking Webb’s tweet above into consideration, Ctrl is not an album that lends itself to easy interpretation, as my two days of attempting to write this review have proven. In this respect, Ctrl is an album built upon the inner musings of the mind, occupying the undefined and nebulous regions of the brain where fantasy and reality meet and where the abstract meets the literal. This may explain why two songs so disparate in sound and thematic tone as opener “And See the Flaming Skies,” and “Around Every Corner,” which closes Ctrl, can exist on an album unified by a common narrative.
Despite the wondrous shape note choir (an inspired addition to Webb’s sound) that begins and concludes it, “And See the Flaming Skies” is a subdued affair, consisting of a softly picked guitar and down tempo drum beat, as Webb’s lyrics are hymn-like in word and delivery: “Soon as from earth I go, what will become of me?/ Eternal happiness or woe, must then my portion be!” In contrast, “Around Every Corner” zips along with synthesizer, bass, and drums in full effect, providing a full-bodied sonic backbone that explodes into an exuberant bridge that thoroughly displaces the decorous nature of the album’s opener: “This is no place for a civilized man, this is no face of a civilized man/ So don’t you follow me, don’t you follow me.” The differences, musically and lyrically, between the beginning and ending of Ctrl speak to the journey it takes its listener on over the course of its ten songs, a journey from fantasy to reality, bondage to freedom, and yes, law to grace.
Marking the beginning of our protagonist’s fantasies, “A City With No Name” and “I Can’t Sleep” detail the effects of living in a dream and ignoring reality. The circular rhythm of the keyboard and Webb’s constant shifts into a higher register on “A City With No Name” afford the song a dreamlike atmosphere, which matches with his description of an illusory world, “It’s a place you cannot live, in a city with no name/ You can have what you bring in, but it always ends the same.” “I Can’t Sleep” follows, providing a context for the previous song’s city—“The place where I exist, the real me, not a fake/ My hands on the controls till the moment I awake.” Foreboding drums and random flourishes of the guitar saturate the background of “I Can’t Sleep,” mimicking the protagonist’s inability to fall asleep, afraid of having to wake up again to an uncontrollable reality. Webb’s use of the shape note choir samples here contrasts strongly with its use on “And See the Flaming Skies,” injecting the finale of “I Can’t Sleep” with a terror that reveals the confused mindset of the protagonist.
In fact, confusion, paradox, and contradiction seem to reign over the course of Ctrl’s midsection, as our protagonist is unable to escape the messiness of reality, progressively losing more and more control over his life. With “Blocks,” a mid-tempo lullaby of a song in which Derek confesses “I love what I can control, so I don’t love very much,” Ctrl enters a second act of sorts where the protagonist attains the woman of his desire, only to find that his desire has taken over control of him. “Pressing on the Bruise,” one of the album’s most intriguing musical compositions (and sympathetic song titles!) due to its use of the shape note choir and a laid back, almost bluesy guitar and bass rhythm, opens with a typical Derek Webb question: “How can you live two lives, when both are asking all of you?” The rollicking “Attonitos Gloria” follows, pulsating with a nervous energy as the protagonist attains the fulfillment of his desire, before quickly fading to the solemn, slow-burning “I Feel Everything.” Acting as the turning point of the story, “I Feel Everything” ends with a line that channels St. Paul’s soliloquy in Romans 7—“I’m just a body overwhelmed and lying still, a casualty of knowing what I want and wanting what I know.”
It is with that expression of acquiescence that Ctrl morphs from a depressing tale of a man obsessed with desire and lust to a tale of undeserved redemption—all it took was an admission of defeat, a confession of a lack of control. The shape note choir ends “I Feel Everything” with what sounds like a benediction, ushering in the sounds of a heart monitor beeping that open “Reanimate.” The song slowly unfolds and builds to a beautiful, airy bridge where Webb exclaims, “I’m alive, I survived…oh, I can explain how I got to the ledge, the mystery is how I got here.” Continuing the thread, “A Real Ghost” makes the spiritual nature of this revivification explicit: “I closed my eyes, I felt no pain/ I wished I could be born again, to my surprise I woke to find it done.” Taking all of Ctrl into account, I am amazed at Webb’s ability to take a variety of big ideas and weave them into a singular and emotionally resonant message of hope.
Of course, Ctrl still has secrets that I have yet to uncover, including a vaguely Inception-like possibility that the whole episode described by “Pressing on the Bruise” and “Attonitos Gloria” might have been a dream, but I’ll leave that one for all of you to figure out. Sonically, the combination of folk, electronica, and shape note choirs really works (Ctrl is very much a headphone listen!), although I for one am left wanting even more of the shape note samples. But even if it didn’t have such captivating production, Ctrl‘s journey would still be worth taking: who of us can’t relate to a protagonist whose desire to be in absolute control of his life has gotten in the way of experiencing God’s grace? A man who, through the course of failure and defeat–and without doing anything to deserve it–finds redemption waiting to revive and restore him to life? Now that’s a story worth telling over and over.
Ctrl is available online at Derek Webb’s website in advance of its September 4th release date.