Best Albums of 2010: “Feedback” by Derek Webb.

I’m not sure if you will find it a fun excursion or a useless diversion for me to ramble on about the music and films I have loved in 2010.  At the risk of you telling me to get back to preaching, the truth is I have an almost obsessive compulsive instinct to document everything that moves me in some kind of list.  When Amanda and I watched High Fidelity for the first time a few years ago, years after its release, I didn’t know whether or not it was comforting or unsettling to know that there are other people who might be this neurotic.  I mean, having a list of favorite live U2 songs and studio U2 songs is one thing.  Having a top ten list of Bono vocal performances, Edge guitar solos, greatest drum moments for Larry Mullen Jr. and favorite bass lines from Adam Clayton is close to certifiable.

But I digress.  I probably could to a top ten albums list for 2010, but the back half of it would be pretty watered down–so I’ve elected instead to write a bit more at length about 3 albums that I have not had the desire or inclination to get over this year.  I’m limiting the list to my top 3.

First off is Derek Webb’s instrumental “worship” album, “Feedback.”  When it was first announced that Webb would be doing an extended meditation on The Lord’s Prayer, I assume there was an expectation by some that this would be a novelty act at best or a vanity project at worse.  But not only is “Feedback” a genuinely beautiful album, it’s an absolute necessity in the overall Webb cannon.  For the sake of contextualization, here’s a quick survey: Since his first solo album, the folky lyrical masterpiece “She Must and Shall Go Free,” Webb has rightfully earned his reputation as the Christian market’s provacateur-in-chief.  On that album, it was the stark “Wedding Dress” (“I am a whore I do confess/But I put you on like a wedding dress/and I run down the aisle to you”), the strong eccliessiology, and overt Reformed theology that took the Church by storm.  On his sophomore project, “I See Things Upside Down,” the ever restless Webb was under the spell of Wilco, Radiohead and Lanois, creating a lovely sonic buffet of electronic textures.  The wandering pilgrim next tried on Bob Dylan’s cloak with a Hauerwasian protest, “Mockingbird” a strong album that nonetheless found the music secondary to the message of Christ-shaped peace and justice.  ”The Ringing Bell” came next, the tightest and most complete Webb album with his shortest and most confidently delivered songs.  The last outing was “Stockholm Syndrome,” his most lyrically bombastic record (“Mommy, I think the guy from Caedmon’s Call said a cuss word!”), and for that matter perhaps even sonically bombastic (the dissonant electronic flourishes were actually as defining as the “controversial” lyrics).  Every one of these albums was worthwhile in a different way, and most entertaining for me, each album was offensive to a different demographic’s expectations.

But was Webb running the the risk of being pigeon-holed so much as the provocateur as to be confined?  That may be unfair since he’s routinely written some of the most elegant songs of faith in the last decade.  But at least in terms of perception, Webb has seemed like the guy carpet bombing one sacred cow after another.  The bitingly prophetic edge has been especially consistent with regards to so-called “worship music.”  When Webb first starting playing solo gigs, he would routinely sell Marva Dawn’s A Royal Waste of Time: The Splendor of Worshipping God and Being Church for the World, a literate rant against the state of contemporary worship music.  When I brought him into play at the Church I worked at in Gastonia, NC, he gently scolded us for not having hymnals (unlike the delightful Marva Dawn, who I had the honor to meet a few years ago, we aren’t Lutheran.  Pentecostals aren’t known so much for their hymnals).  While Webb went on down diverse musical trails, he has never really let up on his relentless critique that contemporary praise music is shallow, overly simplistic and insultingly narrow in scope.  While along the way he has flirted with hymnody himself, he had not yet fully demonstrated a constructive alternative.

And then along came “Feedback.”  Devoid of prophetic criticism, this time Webb took a break from deconstructing evangelical Christianity and brought us the sound of pure adoration.  If Brian Eno were saved, sanctified and baptized in the Holy Ghost (in the language of Pentecostal testimony), this is what it might sound like.  The only thing that gets provoked on “Feedback” is holy imagination.  Trading in provocative for evocative, my only strong non-Eno comparison is the score to the 1984 fantasy film “The Neverending Story,” with its use of magisterial, other-wordly keyboards.  When I listen to “Your Kingdom Come,” I feel the kingdom coming down.  It’s not the only vocal, but the only intelligible word on the album is on the final track “Amen,” a lovely conclusion to a reverent album.  This time around, it’s not Webb throwing bombs into the vestibule, he’s at the front of the stage leading us in worship.  And it doesn’t come with a snarky “now THAT is what worship sounds like!” vibe but a palpable, delicate humility.

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