Derek Webb’s New Album has Guitars, Choirs … and Dumbledore?

Derek Webb might possibly have picked the worst month ever to release a new album.

In September, both The Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons are releasing new discs–er, mp3s–so there is always the risk that Webb’s new 10-track album Ctrl might get overshadowed by bands that have achieved far more popularity than he has.

But then, Webb is no amateur, and his days of both a part of Caedmon’s Call and his solo career have resulted in a 10-track collection that incorporates mostly guitar picking and choirs–both singing and chanting–in its songs. Ctrl is a departure from Webb’s previous work, Stockholm Syndrome, which is by far the most reinventive of his albums and featured far more electronic sounds than the folksier guitar playing that marked Webb’s early solo songs. Ctrl also lacks the controversy of the previous album, as there are no swear words or songs written from Jesus’ perspective that are directed to Fred Phelps.

I’ve listened to the album twice now, and here’s my verdict on Ctrl: it’s good, but I wouldn’t say it’s great.

It’s lyrically well done and the guitars and choirs sound beautiful, but it also lacks both the energy and the punch that characterized Webb’s previous records. Ctrl may be the weakest member of the Derek Webb collection–but it’s also worth noting that Webb’s “weak” is still better than a lot of people’s “good”.

It’s certainly his most mellow album to date. In terms of energy, Ctrl reminds me of Webb’s I See Things Upside Down, which was a lyrically powerful collection of songs but not one that you could ever really jam out to. Like that album, Ctrl is chill and possibly a great thing to listen to on your iPod if you need some background noise while you study.

While I’ve described the album in general, here are some specifics.

The opening number, “And See the Flaming Skies”, starts with what sounds like Gregorian chanting–the first time that Webb incorporates this into not only this album but also his solo career. The choirs are, in my opinion, a welcome addition to the styles that Webb has used. The first song is a good introduction to Ctrl, and it’s followed by “Can’t Sleep”, which relies much more on the guitar but is accompanied by a choir later in the song.

“Blocks” includes some beautiful guitar picking and, quite possibly, a hint of just how much Webb might like the  Harry Potter books, particularly the scene in the last book between Harry and his departed mentor:

like a bride behind a veil

i see you in the machine

just because it’s in your head

doesn’t mean it isn’t real

So … did Dumbledore inspire this particular section of Webb’s newest release? I posed that question to the artist via Twitter and didn’t get a response. (Considering the online traffic he gets, I can’t say I’m surprised.) So, in my imagination, without a single shred of evidence to back this up, I believe that Harry Potter so engrained itself in Webb’s mind that he unconsciously incorporated its dialogue into Ctrl. Yeah. We’ll go with that.

The sixth song, “Attonitos Gloria”, is the first upbeat song of the album; because it has more energy than the songs that preceded it, it probably should’ve been moved up to give Ctrl an earlier sense of momentum.

My favorite lyrics of the album come from the final tune, “Around the Corner”:

i’m backing into a love affair

with this life that’s mine

never again the man i was

mine’s a brand new mind

Buy or No Buy?

Buy.

Ctrl is a good bridge between the sounds of Webb’s earlier career and his newest work. So if your tastes are more for She Must and Shall Go Free (my personal favorite), then this album might be better suited for you than Stockholm Syndrome was.

Ctrl is a good album. It’s not the best that Derek Webb has ever done, but it’s a good collection of songs put forward by a musician who, thankfully, has never been afraid to reinvent his style. If you’re a Webb fan, then there’s no reason for you to not buy this album. If you’ve never heard of the guy, then I’d still recommend Ctrl but with the added encouragement to check out his other work.

So buy it. It might not be the strongest of Webb’s solo albums, but Ctrl is certainly good enough to be yet another reason why September will be the month of great music.

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