If anything is can be expected from Derek Webb, it's that no two albums will be the same. In 2009, he abandoned his acoustic folk stylings for digital experiments in Stockholm Syndrome. The following year, his worship album announcement turned out to be a classically composed electronic instrumental project called Feedback. Since then, it seems he's always up to something -- producing, remixing, collaborating, and leading his fans on online scavenger hunts when new music time comes around. So what could the long-awaited follow-up to Stockholm Syndrome have in store? One might expect another political, controversial piece, especially during an election year, but instead Ctrl surprises by turning the conversation inward. The result is one twisted trip down the rabbit hole, juxtaposing dark drum loops, Sacred Harp choir samples, and nylon string guitar melodies to blur the lines between reality and dreams, and explore the tension of death and resurrection, darkness and hope.
In the past few years, Webb has perfected a marriage of synthetic and organic sound, and Ctrl brings this new style back to his folk songwriter roots, mixing flourishes of choral samples into his ambient soundscapes. The somewhat off-key passion of untrained choirs burst in and out, trading vocals with Webb in an out of time duet, serving as transitioning interludes, or emerging out of nowhere to create an otherworldly atmosphere. In fact, they set the stage right away with opening track "And See the Flaming Skies." Ambient sound and a sample of Sacred Harp hymn "Indumea" kick off the album and lead into Webb singing "And am I born to die? / To lay this body down!" The effect is startling and apocalyptic, yet the urgency and emotion in his voice keep the human element alive.
At first listen, the whole experience is a weird, ambiguous journey. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to compare his approach to Radiohead's classic OK Computer or Sufjan Steven's bizarre confessional experiment The Age of Adz. The contrast of synthetic drum loops with acoustic songwriting seems like a metaphor for humanity and spirit in a fast-paced digital world. The title Ctrl even appears to have a double meaning, as the spelling nods to technology and the theme of control recurs again and again. Normally, there is no mistaking Derek Webb's lyrical intent, as he has often issued challenges against the church and tackled political subjects. But closer listens and a bit of digging into the lyrics reveal a record about the politics of the heart, "Where all your wildest dreams are tame / all your fiction true / but you have less control of it / than it has of you" ("A City with No Name").
The poignant "Blocks" confesses "I love what I can control / So I don't love very much," before melting into one of Webb's most vulnerable choruses "I just want love / And I would do anything to get it." And so the journey goes through a maze of misplaced love, pride, and a desire for control, until the turning point comes in "I Feel Everything," a haunting lament to sensory overload, and a decision to relinquish all control, "I'm just a body overwhelmed / And lying still / A casualty of knowing what I want and wanting what I know." The ultimate end is not nihilistic despair, but hope, waking up, and coming back to life. In one of the record's most powerful moments, the choir returns singing "Farewell Anthem," a beeping heart monitor sample moves from life to death, and resurrection begins in the airy, uplifting "Reanimate": "I feel my body move / The haze start to lift / Like waking from a crash... my eyes finally see."
Ctrl is tough to define, because it's a puzzle that offers more questions than answers. The woven sounds and haunting lyrics pull the listener into the mystery, even at its most unexpected turns. Multiple listens start to unravel the layers; sudden choral samples and strange musical twists turn out to be charged with meaning. Those who enjoy a cerebral challenge could find a lot of fun in puzzling out the depths of this record, as well as discovering the links to Webb's side project Sola-Mi (A free download and a must-have companion). Those who might have been turned off by his message-driven writing in the past may find this more confessional side of Derek Webb worth another chance. Ctrl is ultimately a surprising, perplexing, and overall redemptive piece of art.- Review date: 9/3/12, written by Jen Rose of Jesusfreakhideout.com
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