Gospel Fluency by Jeff Vanderstelt, Free for CAPC Members
In Gospel Fluency, Jeff Vanderstelt wants to help every believer speak the gospel in the stuff of everyday life.
I hated David Bazan’s Curse Your Branches the first time I heard it. The instrumentation often felt out of place with the words and the words themselves were often not-exactly-catchy reprisals of arguments you might hear in a “Philosophy 101” class. Having followed Bazan throughout his Pedro the Lion career, I was naturally disappointed to watch an artist I loved go from singing hymns to doubting the existence of God.
I thought about Curse Your Branches a lot while listening to Derek Webb’s newest release, Fingers Crossed. While Webb’s journey has been different than Bazan’s in many ways, the comparison is hard to avoid: both singer-songwriters showed (and in Webb’s case, told) us that any distinction between “Christian” and “secular” music was silly before they took up themes other artists wouldn’t. Both of them attracted many Christian fans who deeply appreciated their honesty and then mourned when Bazan apostatized and Webb divorced his wife after an affair.
During his solo career, Derek Webb has veered back and forth between explaining every detail of his lyrics and leaving their interpretation up to his listeners. Either way, he’s always reveled in stoking controversy and has never seemed satisfied unless he was saying or doing something unique. His recent dalliances with more abstract songwriting have had mixed success; as a result, he’s been unable to resist the temptation to explain everything he’s written. That being said, all he’s revealed so far about Fingers Crossed is that it’s the “deeply personal tale of two divorces.”To an outsider looking in, it feels more like an unintentional cautionary tale than a story that evokes sympathy.
The first divorce is obviously his separation from his wife but the second is less clear. Songs like “Goodbye For Now” and “Easter Eggs” suggest that God may not exist at all, while “Fingers Crossed” and “Tempest in a Teacup” are oriented more towards his separation from fellow believers. Perhaps Webb is still struggling to believe in God while unable to put up with His followers, or perhaps he’s signaling his departure from Christianity entirely. Many of the songs could easily be addressed to his ex-wife, God, or other Christians, and from the album’s perspective, separation from God and His followers seems to go hand in hand. When Webb talks about how he “burned the house down where he kept everything,” it seems like he really means everything.
Webb’s songwriting has always been at its best when he’s passionate about a subject but gently resisting the urge to be edgy. Unfortunately, Fingers Crossed is chock-full of intentional edginess. Webb tries to squeeze as many provocations as he can into a single album rather than let his stories speak for themselves. He’s full of regret and sorrow for the choices he’s made but also makes repeated references to fate and predestination — as if this path was the only one he could take.
Sonically, the album is closest to Ctrl, Webb’s transhumanist concept album, though he’s opted for sparser arrangements this time. The music works well enough, setting an appropriate tone of despair and regret while the melodies mostly meander along with the lyrics. This is a trap Webb has fallen into before (e.g., “My Enemies Are Men Like Me” from Mockingbird), but this is his first album where song after song feels the same.
There are, however, two exceptions that stand out in a number of a ways. The first is “The Spirit Bears the Curse,” which sounds and feels immediately different from the rest of the record. A worship song parody with a gut-punch twist, it induces laughter and then immediately prompts sadness because it reveals just how empty and shallow a lot of modern worship singing is. Even more depressing is that the song, which initially didn’t seem to fit the album thematically, may perhaps fit it all too well.
The other song that doesn’t fit is “The Braver One,” a moving memorial to a friend who died of cancer. Webb holds on to his classic verve (“I don’t know what asshole said/It’s better to have loved and lost”) but he doesn’t let it dominate the song. He ends with a reference to seeing his friend’s face again after she dies, which hints at a hope otherwise unreferenced on the album. However, “The Braver One” was first released as a free single on NoiseTrade in 2015 and may or may not represent his current thoughts.
It’s not easy to review or analyze a record as personal as this one. Webb has said what he feels and written songs that convey the ugliness and pain of divorce. His work will resonate with people who are walking the same journey as him, but to an outsider looking in, it feels more like an unintentional cautionary tale than a story that evokes sympathy.
Thinking back to David Bazan’s Curse Your Branches, what made that record more compelling was the fact that the grand statements and questions about faith were so shallow that they couldn’t hold up the songs. The music wasn’t about making a statement; it was about recording the horror of deconversion and describing what it feels like to choose the path you once thought was the worst possible. Bazan wasn’t trying to prove a point as much as he was using the language of apostasy to capture the pain of leaving Christianity and his fellow believers.
Derek Webb gets the pain part exactly right; “Love Is Not a Choice” and “Chasing Empty Mangers” capture just how much any divorce hurts. Where he goes further than Bazan ever did, though, is where Fingers Crossed compares unfavorably to Curse Your Branches. One gets the sense that Webb is not merely trying to tell a personal tale; he’s trying to publicly teach us something, though that instruction seems like it’s only comprehensible or meaningful to people who already know what it feels like. There are repeated callbacks to previous records, most poignantly (but also most confusingly) to his biggest hit “Wedding Dress,” but they mostly underscore how much more powerful Webb’s voice was when it didn’t feel like he was trying to settle a score.
Over the years, Derek Webb has been deemed a “prophet,” though he never claimed that title for himself and never wore the mantle comfortably. Instead, he’s insisted that his job was to look at the world and tell his listeners what he sees. Fingers Crossed continues in that tradition. However, this time his vision is jaded and he’s yelling at ghosts in his rearview mirror. He’s recorded an album that shows and tells the truth: Any divorce is ugly but “like any existential crisis / you can’t know what the price is / until you feel the flame.”
Matthew Loftus lives in South Sudan, where he teaches and practices Family Medicine. He is also a columnist for Christianity Today and a regular contributor at Mere Orthodoxy. Visit his family’s website at MatthewAndMaggie.org to learn more about his work.
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