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I See Things Upside Down
Artist: Derek Webb
Derek Webb is rapidly ascending to the type of songwriter that Keith Green was known as: willing to say the prophetic things that need to be addressed, things that indict the complacency of the church and its followers. With a few more albums in this manner, he will rise to a level previously held by Green and Rich Mullins.
“I Want a Broken Heart” opens the disc, addressing the need for humans to acknowledge their need for God, and pointing out the futility in trying to please ourselves: “The cattle on a thousand hills/weren’t enough to pay my bills”. “Better than Wine” shows Webb singing in a higher range than on previous albums, and the song itself contains a Jars of Clay vibe, almost too polished. It would fit in alongside AAA radio standards like Coldplay and U2.
The U2 connection continues in “The Strong, The Tempted, and The Weak,” with a fadeout at the end reminiscent of “One.” “Reputation” feels like an outtake from Webb’s first project, She Can and Must Go Free. “Ballad in Plain Red” uses a muted, chant-like lower vocal from Webb, rendering it almost in a Love and Rockets range. The toy piano on this song fits it well.
“I Repent” and “T-Shirts” may be the two best songs I’ve heard this year. The former portrays the problem in getting caught up in self-image:
I repent of confusing peace and idolatry“T-Shirts” is scathing in its honesty, depicting Christians who outwardly portray Christ with slogans and signs, but whose lives don’t measure up to their label. Done in a Beatlesque/Matthew Sweet style, it condemns facile Christianity, and points out the need for love, not words:
They’ll know us by the T-shirts that we wearIt is impossible to listen to I See Things Upside Down without being offended, then ashamed. Webb says the things that need to be said, no matter how unpalatable they may be to seekers of “comfort” music. If you want to be challenged, or listen to music that will provoke thought and discussion, buy this immediately. Webb is a talented singer, but more importantly, he has firmly established a track record of speaking exactly what Christ has put on his heart without sugarcoating the message. Sometimes we all need the bitter pill to cure what ails us…
Brian A. Smith
I would love to be able to read the mind of an artist who knows the next album that they just made will alienate many fans, while inspire others. This is certainly what has happened with the release of I See Things Upside Down. Derek Webb eschews every bit of the cloud that has hung over his head since he left Caedmon’s Call back in 2002. What Webb has given us is an album full of challenging lyrics and possibly the best album in Christian music this year.
Lyrically, Webb continues to challenge the church on everything from love of others to legalism. “T-shirts (What We Should Be Known For)” challenges Christians to live beyond the culture that has been formed around the modern church. “Medication” begs for the hand of God in our lives no matter what the circumstances. “Better Than Wine” is an godly expression of love. When it comes to lyrics, Webb is able to creatively and poignantly express his thoughts about the state of the church and its followers.
In regards to the music, Christian music hasn’t seen anything this good since The Normals bowed out with A Place Where You Belong. While stripped down at its base, the songs carry a sonic depth that is very reminiscent of Wilco and Over the Rhine. Atmospheric noises permeate the album opener “I Want a Broken Heart” and semi-instrumental “We Come To You.” “Ballad in Plain Red,” with its organic style, and “Lover Part 2,” with its up-front drumming, are the closest comparisons to Wilco here, and that’s certainly a good thing. This high musical quality is due to the collaboration between Webb, Cason Cooley (formerly of The Normals), Will Sayles, and Paul Moak (both of which toured with Over the Rhine within the past year). With the addition of them in this project, Webb has certainly taken a musical step forward. This shift has not only distanced himself from his former band, but even his first solo album.
With I See Things Upside Down, Webb pushes his vocals to a place we haven’t seen since “What You Want,” from Caedmon’s Call’s 2000 release, Long Line of Leavers. The raw vocals here express his passion in a way that over-produced vocals never could. “We Come To You” features Webb’s wife, Sandra McCracken, on background vocals.
It really is sad that many listeners will be turned off by this musical shift. Many will dismiss Webb’s experimentation as a slip in creativity, when it really is more creative than anything that Caedmon’s Call ever did. Fans of The Normals, Over the Rhine, and Wilco should be able to embrace this album with no problem. It’s been a long time since Christian music has seen something this good.
Zach Delph 11/11/04