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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
Derek Webb has packed a prophetic punch with artistic power and poetry. The late Rich Mullins seed might be coming to harvest, and Webb seems to be leading the pack out of cliché and worn out sentimentality to make challenging albums both in the artform and the spiritual content. First the artform. This is a revelation in Webb's musical development. Caedmon's Call were a pretty straight-ahead acoustic band, and even in his very well executed debut solo album, _She Must And She Will Go Free,_ was never pushing envelopes.
Here Webb is jumping envelopes. His voice is rough and ragged at times, which is a sign of the vulnerability and raw honesty of the words it verbalises. Musically, it all begins with distorted samples and quirky rhythms. There are sparse atmospheric moments like "Nothing is Ever Enough," there are cellos capturing your imagination in "I Repent," and there are spacious piano chords of "Medication." The variety of templates is ambitious and makes for an utterly fascinating piece of music, constantly intriguing, often surprising and never allowing you to take it for granted. It also seeps through to hypnotise you on a slow burn of underlying beauty.
The content is even more jarring and adds to the beauty the truth which is not such a pleasurable listen. There is an astute line here on "Ballad In Plain Red"--"Love the Lord but don't hear a single"--which specifies the CCM industry for its critique, not that any of us are let out of from under the interrogators light on this album. It is like Webb has read Donald B. Kraybill's insightful book _Upside Down Kingdom_ and then done the ridiculous--applied it to his life! He has realised the need to repent of the American dream which tries to steal everything from us because it can never get enough. The rest of "Ballad In Plain Red" challenges the idea that when commerce becomes god, and those who follow God don't live in upside down-ness to it, then we become salesmen compromising truth for what works. This is one album that is not hitting the wall.
Webb's first album was a concept album based around the theology of the Church. This one is not a concept album, but it is strongly based on the theme of living this upside down life that Jesus called us too with out artificiality or hypocrisy--the cover states
failure = success
Webb is keen to ask what it means to take up Christ's cross daily and follow him and how far removed from such an invitation the western church is in these spoiled and selfish times. We demand things that we feel are our rights to make us secure and comfortable. To give credence to our decadence, we tame God "by domesticating you until you look just like me." What has this to do with God emptying himself and making himself nothing and dying on a cross and calling us to do likewise? This is not common stuff in a Christian industry where the album on the car stereo on the way to work is more likely to be about what blessing God will pour out on your heart today. The opening, "I Want A Broken Heart,"leaves no one expecting the kind of designer spirituality that masquerades behind the bumper stickers of our perverted greedy version of capitalism.
Webb's going solo from Caedmon's Call and stepping back from the centre of the industry is paying rich dividends in content. To deal with these kinds of themes and not end up contrived is a success. To make it this good is rare indeed. How it sells is yet to be seen.
Steve Stockman 2/24/2005