offering some feedback: first impressions of derek webb’s ambitious worship project

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Thursday, November 4th, 2010

offering some feedback: first impressions of derek webb’s ambitious worship project

just over a year ago, twitter followers of derek webb curiously pondered whether or not he was joking when he tweeted the following:

ok, i know i’ve joked about it before but it crystalized today and i’ve decided. seriously. i’m making a worship record this year.less than a minute ago via Twitter for iPhone

wait. are we getting punk’d? webb has been a long-time critic of the type of industry machine that churns out vacuous, pop-driven worship albums and now he was going to create one? surely he was messing with us.

but a couple days ago, we received tangible proof that he was, in fact, not messing with us when he released his latest project, feedback, an instrumental electronic worship album based on the lord’s prayer (yes, you read that correctly…).

and that’s a very good thing.

before i jump into some thoughts, here’s some context. on his newly launched website, he offers this artist’s statement:

Worship is a complicated idea. Arguably, it’s what we all do, 24 hours a day (regardless of what we’re worshipping). And I’m aware of a lot of “worship product” in the marketplace I sometimes occupy. So I was cautious when I first started receiving the coordinates that would lead me to make ‘Feedback’. It was immediately conceptual and ambitious, so much so that I genuinely wasn’t sure I could do it. But this seemed to be the perfect posture in which to create something worthy of being called a “worshipful” piece of art. So I studied, meditated, struggled and prayed my way through this creative process, and it’s easily the most challenging thing I’ve done in my career. But I believe it’s been worth it, even just for the ways it’s stretched both my creative process and my faith as a follower of the Way.

additionally, just before the album released, artist matthew smith tweeted “seven things you didn’t know” about webb’s new project. i’m not sure if i ultimately agree with every one, but they definitely offer some context and insight. here’s his 7 things:

1. SANDRA MCCRACKEN IS A STRONG PRESENCE. Her sense of melody is all over this record. And the musical partnership works seamlessly.
2. INSTRUMENTAL DOESN’T MEAN NO SINGING. Vocals are used as an instrument, with a good deal of singing, but without words.
3. CLASSICALLY COMPOSED DOESN’T MEAN CLASSICAL. Modern instrumentation, classically structured. Can’t be confused with Mozart.
4. WORSHIP RECORD? IT’S A SOUNDTRACK. A soundtrack to prayer. If you’re down w/ http://read.ly/1Thess5.17.NLT, it’s a soundtrack to life.
5. IT’S NOT A THROWAWAY SIDE PROJECT. Don’t skip it because it’s not a standard pop release. Derek’s not a standard pop artist.
6. IT’S A SIGN OF THINGS TO COME. He’s using programming to create expansive sonic landscapes without budget constraints. Brilliant.
7. IT WILL OFFEND YOU. It’s art that invites you to engage, not just consume. These days, that’s more scandalous than swear words.

so that offers a little context. let me hop into my reactions to the music, specifically (for the time being, at least, until i have a chance to further engage the visual art pieces). it’s hard to sufficiently capture the essence of the project in rather lifeless words here on my blog, but i’ll attempt to offer a bit of the spirit of each track, grouped into 3 movements.

MOVEMENT I
our father in heaven
this track begins with a slow build, almost cinematic in nature, like something moving toward a horizon—or something far away moving toward us as a listener. it’s almost an awakening, like god—engaged in this lord’s prayer—is joining us. with its epic piano and strings, it’s an invitation for the listener to participate in the worship.

hallowed is your name
like its name, this track is the most hallowed—the most sacred—track on the album. in many ways, it’s the most “traditional” worship sound webb offers, with an ethereal piano and synth line that runs throughout. it’s probably also one of the most abstract pieces, which sort of speaks to a certain mystery.

your kingdom come
have i mentioned that derek webb is a huge fan of arcade fire? whether i have or not, you could gather it from this track. this is webb’s wake up from 2004’s funeral (think of the last 2 minutes of the track or, more accurately, the re-recorded version for where the wild things are). this is the moment where the album really comes alive, with a joyous sense of whimsy and energy. when coldplay is at its best, they beautifully build and layer songs until a big crescendo and that’s exactly what webb does with your kingdom come about halfway through the song. if any song truly personifies its title, this is it. take a listen to your kingdom come:

your will be done on earth as in heaven
like the previous track, there are hints of arcade fire, but in a very, very different way. it begins dark and chaotic, once again with a cinematic feel (almost like something that would work in the opening credits of a coen brothers film). it actually sounds like something that could have found life on last year’s stockholm syndrome, with its merge of synth overlays and pop sensibilities. much like your kingdom come’s auditory personification, this track also offers a pretty stark embodiment of this merging of heaven and earth. as the track progresses, there’s an interplay between dark and light, contrasting aggressive, dissonant guitars with glitchy, tech sounds. in the end, (much like the ending of the 2nd movement), we hear what sounds like webb leaving the studio, getting in his car and driving away. it hints at the need to step away or process what you’ve heard in the first movement.

MOVEMENT II
give us this day our daily bread
to begin the 2nd movement, webb offers a bit of a palate cleanser. it’s the most mellow vibe of any track, with a sort of john mayer-esque electric guitar to it (look, i know that to some that’s a horrific thing, but the guy can play a guitar and write a catchy song). after a sort of angelic choir sound, the track builds to a brief crescendo, tapping back into small hints of the arcade fire sound found in the last few tracks.

forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors
this is one of the most whimsical tracks, sounding almost circus-like. we hear what sounds like female (sandra mccracken?) vocals early and later switches to what is clearly derek webb. throughout the track, the two vocal tones go back-and-forth, creating a bit of a nod to the opposing factions in the track’s title. ultimately, beyond the final track, amen, this is the most prominent use of vocals.

lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil
much like your will be done…, this track is one of the darker songs on the album. with a heavy piano, it’s actually reminiscent to webb’s september democracy vol. 1 track, simon and garfunkel’s sound of silence. in my review of that song, i compared it to the eery piano part in nine inch nails’ closer. whereas this isn’t exactly that type of vibe, it’s a marriage between that and the smashing pumpkins’ opening track from mellon collie & the infinite sadness (titled the same). in the end, in contrast to the closing song of the first movement, we once again here the sound of someone driving a car, but it sounds as if the driver is returning to the studio after having driven, rather than leaving.

MOVEMENT III
for thine is a) the kingdom b) the power c) the glory forever and ever
in kicking off the 3rd and final movement, webb once again picks up the vibe after a rather dark close to the 2nd movement. this track is probably the most “traditional” techno type of sound. it instantly reminded of sufjan stevens’ latest album, the age of adz, in the sense that it takes traditional instrumentation and then layers it over with synths and glitches and bloops. the track, much like the title, seems to have 3 distinct parts: kingdom, power & glory. the kingdom section is synthy and exuberant (much like the track your kingdom come). power is much more strong and march-like with more aggressive sounds. finally, glory is transcendent, with sort of angelic vocals introduced again (harkening back to give us this day…). the end of the track leads us directly into the final moment of the worship experience.

amen
this is easily my favorite track on the album, not just because it’s a truly vocal track, but because it’s the one track that truly lifts you into a different place—into some kind of transcendent other-world. webb begins with a singular amen and then is joined by a chorus of crowd-sourced amens (he tweeted a time and location and people showed up to sing along). it’s really an incredibly beautiful track and was exactly the closing note a project like this needed. take a listen to amen:

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all in all, derek webb’s feedback is a beautiful and worshipful art piece (and i didn’t even touch on the visual pieces). it’s exciting and refreshing to see an artist step outside his comfort zone and still create something that is wholly unique and superbly executed. it’s ambitious and adventurous and, quite frankly, the church is missing this. i don’t know much a project like this will be used in the context of corporate worship, but the church could stand to venture out and engage people in this kind of experience.

check back soon for more on this project, including the paintings, photographs and short films.

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