Derek Webb’s first solo album, She Must and Shall Go Free, has long been one of the most important pieces of music in my life. When I first heard it I was still in high school, a teenager very much trying to live up to the Law, exhausting myself on a daily basis by sifting through every action and comparing it to my personal set of rules for Good Christian Behavior. She Must and Shall Go Free pointed me toward the Gospel—God’s one-way love and inexhaustible grace expressed through Christ—and began a transformation in my understanding of Christian living that continues to this day. So, when Webb announced that his newest record, I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You, would be a follow-up to She Must and Shall Go Free, I was excited and intrigued. How would Webb treat these explicitly Church-related concepts ten years later? Never one to play it safe, would the album be a return to his earlier indie-folk sound or would he continue experimenting with and creating new sonic palettes? Although more understated and subtle than his debut, I Was Wrong proclaims the same message of that album with a confidence and maturity that can only come with experience.
On I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You, Webb has largely discarded the electronic tinkering that pervaded his last two full-length albums, Ctrl and Stockholm Syndrome, in favor of a warmer, full-bodied folk template. In many ways, it sounds like the obvious evolution of She Must and Shall Go Free and I See Things Upside Down, still based in acoustic guitar and piano, yet more musically varied than those albums. As much attention as his songwriting deservedly gets (and should get here), I Was Wrong makes clear just how accomplished and inventive a producer Derek has become over the intervening years. A prime example of this expanded sound, the title track transitions from its slow piano and acoustic beginnings to a soaring chorus, filled with pounding drums and breathy background vocals, an abrupt musical change that would have been out of place on Webb’s earliest albums. I Was Wrong boasts a much more fleshed out and idiosyncratic sound than She Must and Shall Go Free; even the quieter ballads like “Lover Part 3,” “Heavy,” and “Your Heart Breaks in All the Right Places” seem packed full, artfully arranged with enough unpredictable instrumentation and imaginative flourishes to keep the songs interesting despite their slower pace. Likewise, while the faster paced songs on I Was Wrong may recall those from She Must and Shall Go Free in spirit, they also benefit from an injection of the extra energy that was present on The Ringing Bell. In particular, “The Vow” takes a page from Johnny Cash’s book, with the old-timey organ and galloping guitar riff perfectly matching the song’s focus on marriage vows and the wider implications of what “love” means in a Christian context.
In viewing I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You as a sequel to She Must and Shall Go Free, a few tracks stand out as direct comments on the Church, carrying on Webb’s legacy of writing lyrics that encapsulate the frustrations and the joys of being part of an imperfect body of believers. Derek has clearly made peace with his message-music leanings, embracing the heartfelt didacticism at which he excels, without losing any of the emotional resonance or infectious passion. It is a mature piece of work, in other words. The album’s mid-point is the string-soaked “Everything Will Change,” a stirring call not to give up on the Church, as flawed as it may be. The track is distinguished by both its terrifically uplifting melody (and Spector-ized arrangement!) and Webb’s trademark forthrightness: “You make a vow, you take the bread and wine, and the family name, with people who mistake lies for the truth / It’s hard to keep on showing up, it’s easier to run away from home.” The soaring chorus provides a hopeful reminder that our “hope is not wasted on the day when everything will change,” intensified by background vocals courtesy of a number of Webb’s fans, an audible illustration of Christian unity. Similarly, “A Place at Your Table” speaks about unity found in the celebration of communion, confidently declaring the importance of the sacrament: “In conflict and dissent we divide, but you defend and keep your bride in purity and peace, so there will always be a place at your table for me.”
Ultimately, this place at the table is secured by God’s unfailing love, and on “Lover Part 3,” the central thrust of the Gospel message comes through loud and clear. Following in the steps of “Lover” and “Lover Part 2” from Webb’s first two albums, “Lover Part 3” is sung from God’s perspective and delivers this simple line, over and over: “I loved you then and oh, I love you still.” At the core of pretty much all of Derek Webb’s music about Christianity and the Church lies an unwavering understanding of God as a lover, the father of the prodigal son, and the bridegroom in relentless pursuit of his sinful, unfaithful bride. And I’m glad this is what motivates Webb’s music, because this is exactly what I need to hear, over and over again. I need less Christian music telling me that I can live a victorious life if I just focus on Christ enough, I need less Christian music bathed in the sheen of prosperity, and I most certainly do not need any Christian music that does not have God’s unfathomable, unconditional love and grace at its center.
I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You will, for many, restore their faith in Derek Webb’s ability to create engaging folk music that honestly interacts with some of faith’s deepest issues. For me, the album represents another step forward in Webb’s career, because he has refashioned the music and themes that animated She Must and Shall Go Free into something familiar yet fresh, clear-eyed and incandescent (and with far more sonic twists and turns). He has done all this without losing the current of truth that has powered his music from the beginning, expertly integrating the personal and the prophetic. There is a line on the first track of She Must and Go Shall Free, “Nobody Loves Me,” that has stuck with me ever since I first heard it: “I’m a dangerous crusader, because I need to tell the truth, so I’m turning over tables in my own living room.” For Webb, the tables and living rooms have undoubtedly changed over the years, but the truth has stayed the same–and never sounded sweeter.
While I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You doesn’t officially hit stores and retailers until September 3rd, you can grab a copy today directly from Derek’s website.