Like many, I was introduced to the music of Derek Webb through Caedmon’s Call, the folk band he was part of for many years. I discovered and fell in love with the band a bit late in the game, nearly a decade in, with a five-record discography already under its belt. The first time I saw them live they were touring in support of Back Home. Those songs (and many from subsequent albums) still hold a special place in my heart, but in my estimation, the band’s heyday was probably in the late ’90s with their quintessential work, 40 Acres.
Nonetheless, as a college kid with a heartfelt affinity for songs like Somewhere North, I was fond of saying that any girl I’d marry would have to meet my all-important ABC criteria – an attractive believer who likes Caedmon’s. (I’m happy to report I found and married such a girl, though the third part of the equation ended up factoring in less than I might have originally thought.)
On one occasion a good buddy and I went to the local Christian bookstore under the vague impression Derek had released a solo album. He hadn’t; we were several months premature. But that fall we drove out to the boonies in eastern Pennsylvania to a solo show he did. That was 2002. The following spring our local Christian radio station did a little contest for a chance to win a lunch and small in-studio concert with him. My buddy and I both won, separately. It’s possible not very many people were aware of who this Derek Webb character was. But to us he was a pretty big deal – so much so that we drove to his show an hour away that night for another dose.
Over the years I went to more of Derek’s shows than I can count, mostly in churches and cafés all over central and eastern Pennsylvania, with a bar in Nashville thrown in. But I got to know Derek primarily, of course, through the songs themselves. His debut record, She Must and Shall Go Free, was a concept album all about a tormented relationship of love with the church. That was the same year I happened to really start reading theology (a habit I haven’t managed to kick), and the theological underpinnings of those songs resonated deeply.
And so it continued every year or two, whenever Derek recorded and released a new batch of songs. It was as if my listening to his records was a way of checking in on where the journey had led both of us in the meantime, as we both in one way or another came of age.
At times, I felt as if Derek’s new songs were putting to words the very things I’d been wrestling with myself. On more than one occasion, I suspected we’d been reading the same books and spending time with similar kinds of people. Other times, I’d find we were heading in some different directions, exploring different ideas, using different kinds of vocabulary. There was and is both dissonance and harmony, you might say, between Derek and me (Unlike Derek, I have never had a public feud with The Roots’ drummer Questlove).
Early on, Derek was notorious for over-explaining – sermonizing, really – everything. I haven’t exactly timed it with a stopwatch, but if you listen to his live album The House Show, you’ll find he probably talks twice as much as he sings, quoting Calvin and Luther and various other heavyweights. And compared to a lot of the songs he’d later write, those first songs were for the most part quite straightforward. By his second record, I See Things Upside Down, he was writing much more cryptically, and on tour he said next to nothing about the meanings of the songs, preferring to let the art do the talking. To this day he’ll sometimes tweet strange things about the creative process, letting us know out of the blue that he’s “receiving coordinates” for new songs.
But now, in 2013, Derek has, it seems to me, come full circle. He’s back where he started again, as if for the first time. Like that first record, this time around he really wants to be understood.
As part of Derek’s launch team for his new record, I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You, I’ve been listening to it a lot over the past few weeks, soaking it in, singing along, and then, somewhere along the way, starting to plumb its depths. And I think it’s some of his finest stuff yet.
I could dissect the album for you, word by word, line by line, song by song, but that’s not the best way to approach art – or confession, for that matter, not to mention relationship. And this record is each of those things. You get the impression the record and its title might have something to do with one’s relationship with God and with others alike. Indeed, it captures the very posture required to keep relationships in all directions in tact.
Where will Derek go from here? I don’t know. Frankly, I doubt even he knows which coordinates will come his way next. But with I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You, Derek Webb has given us a gift – a confession, an apology, and a vow.
The new album, I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You, officially drops next Tuesday, September 3, but you can preorder it now at derekwebb.com.