To those Derek Webb fans who may find themselves resisting each of his forays into electronic music with dug in heels and clenched fingers, the creatively shape-shifting singer/songwriter/prognosticator/rabble-rouser might just be trying to meet you in the middle with his newest album, Ctrl.
(Of course, there’s always the off chance he might not be. But for the sake of this review and for the strengthening of your relationship with imaginative, soul stirring, thought provoking, comfort zone stretching art, let’s just say that he is.)
It’s no secret that Derek Webb’s artistic backstory is intricately laced with the equally beautiful and beneficial threads of creativity and controversy. After years of earning a deeply loyal fanbase with college folk troubadours Caedmon’s Call, he embarked on a solo career that allowed him the freedom to put only his own lyrical head on the block, while still maintaining some of the sonic similarities of his previous band. As he challenged his own creative limits with each new album, the (seemingly to some) drastic aural jump of 2009’s Stockholm Syndrome sent many fans seeking refuge in the (seemingly to some) safe confines of his earlier albums. Never one to create in response or retrograde, Derek continued to fashion his songwriting with the only palette available to him at the time, the present one. As Feedback, Democracy, Volume 2 and his work on the NEXUS soundtrack attests to, anyone who would hang on for the ride was met with something new and engaging each and every time.
Which brings us all to his latest release, Ctrl. Have you stuck around the whole time? Well, Derek’s got something unique for you. Do you only peek out from behind your burlap edition of My Calm//Your Storm or your Just Don’t Want Coffee EP whenever he releases something new to see if “the old Derek” is back? Well, Derek’s got something unique for you. Are you a new fan won over by his most recent electronic output? Well, Derek’s got something unique for you. Do you dig shape note singing, disembodied choirs, nylon string guitars and drum loops? Well, Derek’s really got something unique for you.
Melodic, atmospheric and as mellow as anything he’s ever done, Ctrl seems to simultaneously show Derek at his most comfortable and his most uncomfortable. There’s an amazing confidence in his arrangements, production and melodies, especially in the deceptively simplistic, sparser moments. However, within the lyrics, and even in some of the instrumentation, there seems to be an unsettled agitation, an itch just out of reach, that keeps Ctrl from ever getting anywhere near background, easy listening territory. You could try to put this album on while doing something else, but I guarantee you that it won’t be long before a lyric, rhythmic pattern or instrumental line will sneak in and overtake your attention with or without your permission.
The first half of Ctrl ebbs and sways pretty easily. Even the intriguing Sacred Harp choral bursts aren’t that accosting thanks to the gentle organ strains of “A City With No Name,” the finger-plucked guitar of “And See the Flaming Skies” and the fantastic, Tom Waits-y oboe of “Blocks.” By contrast, there’s some gorgeously unsettled vibes found in the agitated acoustic of “Can’t Sleep,” the chromatic chord pattern of “Pressing on the Bruise” and the desperation-fueled lyrics of “Blocks.” Of course, there’s also the aforementioned shape note choir samples popping in here and there, but after a few listens you’ll be singing (or at least improvising) right along with them.
The second half of Ctrl kicks off with “Attonitos Gloria,” the most upbeat track on the album. With a kinetic, shuffle groove built on a bubbling fuzz bass line and live drums, it sounds pretty akin to what Derek did with the SOLA-MI project earlier this year. In fact, there are a multitude of parallel themes, shared verbiage and connected musical moments between Ctrl and the NEXUS soundtrack, (including another heartbeat monitor flatlining and coming back to life) but we’ll leave that to another post. After “Attonitos Gloria,” the album returns to its quieter, laid-back vibe with more finger picked acoustic guitars (“I Feel Everything” and “Reanimate”) and more minimalist melody lines (“A Real Ghost”), before closing things out on a bouncy, spirited note with “Around Every Corner.”
Even on its most elemental, surface level, Ctrl could purely be the album that helps bridge the perceived gap between acoustic guitars and drum machines for bygone Derek Webb fans. But for anyone who’ll give it a listen, Ctrl contains a treasure trove of musicality, ingenuity, honesty, questions, resolutions and much more. No matter your personal level of interaction with Derek’s music, Ctrl stands on its own merit, delivering amazing musical performances, mind-thumping questions and Derek’s crystal clear, unmistakable vocals. Amazing on its own and possibly more than meets the eye when paired with the NEXUS soundtrack, Ctrl is absolutely worth your time and attention.
While not “officially” released until September 4, Ctrl can already be ordered directly from Derek (including an immediate download) in a variety of packages here: derekwebb.com
You can also download 3 of the songs (“Can’t Sleep,” “Pressing on the Bruise” and “A Real Ghost”) directly from NoiseTrade here: noisetrade.com/derekwebb
When writer Will Hodge isn’t looking for correlations between Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz, you can find him running off at the keyboard about music, concerts and vinyl at My So-Called Soundtrack
Full Disclosure: Derek Webb happens to be a partner in NoiseTrade, however this article was written independently and without edit.