Stephen E. Vander Woude | Hammond, IN | 11/11/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Derek Webb, former co-leader of folk-pop outfit Caedmon's Call, returns with his sophomore solo record, "I See Things Upside Down", abandoning the bright country-folk of the impressive "She Must and Shall Go Free" for a denser mood-rock, complete with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-era Wilco atmospherics.
The change can be jarring to one accustomed to Webb's earlier work. The closest touchstone in Webb's catalogue is probably his foray into a modern rock sound on Caedmon's Call's "Long Line of Leavers". But this new album is by no means a regression for Webb, but a bold step forward in distinguishing his art from that of his former band and the CCM sub-culture.
In the album opener, "I Want a Broken Heart", Webb laments his failures of faith over swirling keyboards and cello, punctuated by eerie piano stabs and synth pulses. The effect is mesmerizing. Variations on the theme are used to equally stunning effect on standout tracks "Medication" and "Lover Part 2".
The ramshackle-rock of "Ballad in Plain Red" finds Webb playing devil's advocate in a punchy, irreverent guitar-driven stomper with rattling percussion. The bridge here is expertly executed and enthralling. This song, one of Webb's best ever, could be the evil-twin to the Dylan-esque "Nothing (Without You)" from his first album.
Musically, Webb makes only a few missteps. The bouncy, by-the-numbers "T-shirts" may fit lyrically, but the sound is out of place in the middle of the album's edgier musical landscape. The same might also be said for the sweet "Better than Wine". However, that song stands on the strength of Webb's exquisite vocal, including a lovely falsetto in the chorus. And Webb could have added some interest to the five-minute instrumental comprising the bulk of the eight-minute "We Come to You", penned by Aaron Tate.
As on "She Must and Shall Go Free", the songs on "I See Things Upside Down" feature more of Webb's evocative, almost-brutally honest lyrics aimed at himself and the Christian Church in the United States. In "I Repent", he confesses for himself and the Church the sin of preferring comfort over sacrifice, unity over truth. Webb reminds the Church in "T-shirts" that too-often, Christians are known, not for their love, but for pointing their fingers at sinners and reducing the gospel to clichés printed on billboards and kitschy clothing. Lest anyone accuse him of finger-pointing himself, Webb saves his strongest critique for himself, admitting to his distorted desires in "What is not Love": I give myself / to what looks like love / and I sell myself / for what feels like love / and I pay to get / what is not love / and all just because / I see things upside down. Ultimately, Webb finds solace in the hope of Jesus, where "the strong, the tempted, and the weak" are united in the joy of salvation.
Fans of Webb's "relationship songs" from his Caedmon's Call days may have thought his marriage to singer-songwriter Sandra McCracken marked the end of his odes to the romantic. If so, they will be pleased to find Webb returning to the subject here, pleading for forgiveness from his wife in "Reputation" and using the Bible's Song of Songs as the template for a serenade to his lover in "Better than Wine".
With "I See Things Upside Down", Derek Webb has proved again that he is among today's most gifted song-writers and artists, inside and outside the Church. Songs this good should find attentive listeners in both places. Those who have ears, let them hear."
Coming Of Age
S. Jones | MO, USA | 11/11/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Derek Webb's new project is full of beautiful lyrics, melodies, and lots of breathing space. It has a mood and flow that makes you want to listen straight through without interruption. The songs simultaneously deconstruct the notion of a touch-and-go radio single, while at the same time leaving a lasting impression with haunting melodies and phrases. And his vocals are both vigorous and tattered, with a humanity I miss in much of todays slick music and in some of the Caedmon's Call albums. With relevant themes of modern culture and faith, Derek writes with an honesty that would be compelling to people of all backgrounds and opinions. In other words, you could disagree with his ideas and still find something there to latch onto. I think my favorite track is, "What is Not Love". It is more or less the title track, and it frames the content like a birds eye view.
With "I See Things Upside Down" Webb is clearly showing a "coming of age" in his career. This project showcases his unique way of turning a phrase, coupled with a new freedom in expression and production. It tears down walls and categories, so if you're a listener that looks for something easy and safe to pop in the CD player, you may want to start by listening to some Johnny Cash, Wilco, and Joni Mitchell first. Then, you'll be ready for this kind of art. It is sure to stretch your ears and heart in all directions. "
Both Lyrically and Musically Amazing
Clay Walker | Pineville, LA | 11/11/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Based on some reviews of this album, Derek was correct to predict that not everyone would appreciate this album. I find myself in the other camp that truly appreciates what Derek has done on this CD and since he left Caedmon's Call. The music on this project is not in the typical contemporary Christian style, and in my opinion, that's a great thing. The lyrics are challenging and well-crafted, and the music is amazing. It's remarkable how many issues I've struggled with recently have been addressed on this CD.
Ultimately, I think you should give this album a fair listen and decide for yourself before letting someone's review (including mine) persuade you either way. God bless."
Like faith it grows on you.
A. Carr | United States | 03/06/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"People have been comparing Derek Webb to Bob Dylan, Rich Mullins, and Keith Green. That is a lot to live up to. I bought this CD because Christianity Today rated it the number 1 album of 2004 and mentioned the 3 artists above all which are lyrical geniuses. I ran out to get the CD. At first I was quite disappointed unlike Dylan, Mullins, and Green the music is just background for the lyrics, Mullins/Dylan/ and Green would hook you with their music before you really listened to their lyrics. Derek is a lot more subtle. The first time I listen through I was a little bored and thought "overrated". When I listened to it again and the words to "reputation" and especially "i repent" hit me square in the eyes. Then comes "we come to you" and the convicting song "t-shirts". This man truly "gets" Christianity and music for people who are broken and need grace, which by the way is everyone. Lyrically is knocks it out of the park, musically his songs need to match the beauty of his lyrics. He definately has a message people need to hear but all these mid tempo songs without much of a mix up is going to bore a undiscerning ear. This is a beautiful album."
In-Depth Look at Derek's Latest
S. Paulus | Wheaton, Il. | 11/16/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"There was a time in which Christian art provided you food for thought rather than candy for your ears. Back when worship setlists weren't dictated by the year's WOW playlist, and Christian success wasn't evaluated by the bottom line of album sales and radio play. It feels like forever ago. Today it appears that capitalism, the wooden god of numbers, has a very tangible stranglehold on Christian art.
This is why, when artists like Derek Webb come along, industry execs must be baffled. Derek left a lucrative career as co-frontman of the highly successful band Caedmon's Call so he could start all over. He abandoned playing sold-out 2000 seat venues in favor of more intimate shows of 20 in people's living rooms. A solo folk record criticizing the infidelity of the American Church replaced a decade of accomplished work with Caedmon's.
Even now with Derek's latest venture, he pushes the envelope of loving corporate- and self-criticism even further. "I Repent" is a song of contrition for buying into the lie of upper-class Christian superiority, which we disguise "by trading sins for others that are easier to hide." "T-Shirts (What We Should Be Known For)" describes how, rather than Christians being known for our love (John 13:35), "they'll know us by the t-shirts that we wear, they'll know us by the way we point and stare at anyone whose sin looks worse than ours". He even takes a page out of C.S. Lewis' "Screwtape Letters" to write "Ballad in Plain Red" from Satan's perspective about how he's sabotaging the 21st century Church.
What amazes me is how Derek manages to be scathingly honest, yet remain so caring in his treatment of the Bride that Christ loved to death. The social criticism is cutting, but too loving to come off as preachy. Still, songs like "I Want a Broken Heart", "Better Than Wine", and "We Come to You" provide a nice balance to the ecclesiastical critique of much of the album.
So why is Derek Webb the biggest risk-taker in the Christian music industry? Because as the song "What is Not Love" describes, "what looks like failure is success and what looks like poverty is riches." Because he couldn't have created this record if he'd stayed with Caedmon's Call. Because Derek sees things upside down.
Given Derek's intrepidness, I suppose I shouldn't have been so surprised at the way he has musically started from scratch in this album. It's not folksy anymore, and certainly not the acoustic pop to which fans have become accustomed. The folk sensibilities are still there in his songs, as if they were originally written with an acoustic guitar, but the overall tone feels more like an atmospheric rock album. Stylistic comparisons to Wilco (particularly their "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" album) and Over the Rhine are inevitable. It's rarely "fun", poppy only on occasion, and almost never radio-friendly. Rather, it is visionary, thoughtful and articulate in a way virtually unseen since the days of Rich Mullins. While this experimental sound is one of the most impressive things to me about the album, it may isolate many otherwise attentive listeners. But there again, his own artistic integrity seems to be higher on Derek's priority list than album sales right now.
After listening to Derek's new album, the ever-expanding vista of Christian music looks plastic and superficial by comparison. In a market full of secular imitations, there seem to be disturbingly few artists that are more dedicated to their message than to their bottom lines. I cannot think of another album that I feel like the Church needs to hear more than this one. "I See Things Upside Down" is the best album I've heard yet released this year, and makes me bet those old Dove awards are getting pretty dusty on Derek's shelf."