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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Derek Webb -- I See Things Upside Down


Derek Webb’s I See Things Upside Down is a difficult album. It is difficult musically. It is difficult lyrically. It came out eight years ago, and I’m still stuck on it. Webb has released five albums since, and I haven’t been able to move on to them. I’ve been struggling to even write a review for it over the last few days, and as I’ve said, I’ve had eight years of preparation. I just don’t know what to say about it, so the only thing I can think to do is word puke. That’s right, verbiage vomit, the only way to describe something you are at a loss to describe. The only other option is to skip the album, but I can’t break my own rules. I have to review this.
Lyrically, I See Things Upside Down is a study in contrasts. She Must and Shall Go Free validated the church and the beginning of a walk, but I See Things Upside Down explores the twisted path that follows. How can someone be made new in Christ and yet continue to do horrible things; receive salvation and yet attempt to hand it back? Does that sound like a fun thing to think about? Well, get ready to think about it for fifty minutes and more.
The title of this album has several meanings. The most literal is seeing things incorrectly, thinking that the things that won’t fulfill us will. Then there’s the inverse of that, realizing that the least and weakest are the strongest, and the things we don't think we need are actually what will save us. What could be taken as an arrogant title, the proclamation that Webb sees things differently than everyone else, is actually self-deprecating, an admission that Webb does not do the things he knows he should. Most of I See Things Upside Down follows this tangent, but there are a few off topic tracks. “Better Than Wine” is close to worship, though it follows the girl or God model in a way. “We Come to You” is the weakest track, an in the box worship song (outside of the bass wobble in the background), that balloons to eight minutes with an extended ending obviously designed for church altar calls. It almost feels like Webb included the song to satisfy listeners looking for a clear message, but the journey of the rest of the songs comes to the same conclusion, only in a more thoughtful, difficult fashion.
Musically, it’s clear from the first few minutes of I See Things Upside Down that Derek Webb has been listening to a lot of Radiohead. The moody, atmospheric sound carries through much of the album, as Webb attempts to defy musical expectations. While this works to a degree, there is one definite criticism I can label against this album: it badly needs a shot in the arm. There just isn't enough energy here to sustain the entire fifty minutes. Webb can only float in the air so long before he comes back to Earth. A faster tempo or a little kick, anything in the vein of previous Webb songs like “Not the Land” would have sufficed. That's the only concrete criticism I can level against I See Things Upside Down as a whole. Then again, if Webb wants to not sound like himself, he has done that, and for much of the album, this more sophisticated, oblique sound works. Which leads back to the issue at hand: contradictions.
Not much of what Webb says on this album is easy to take. “I Repent” includes apologies for Webb living with his wife and children in “our suburb, where we’re safe and white.” On a personal level, I hate suburbs and think they are evil, but on the other hand, black or white, what is wrong with wanting to keep one’s family safe? Very few lines on this album are simple “preach it, brother” moments. It’s like Webb has candy in one hand and a paddle in the other, and he’s spinning in front of the listener like a freshly hit and angry piñata.
At first, I grew promptly fed up with Webb's work on this album. Why should I listen to someone who is going to keep poking me with a stick? Why not listen to something else? Re-listening to Webb’s early work with Caedmon's Call, and his first two albums for these reviews, I am reminded of his skill and importance to the musical landscape. In the past, I grew quickly irritated as Webb's work became more confrontational, but the more I force myself to listen, the more enjoyment I find. There are some really great songs here, and really, the only one I can’t take is “Ballad in Plain Red,” which sounds like one of those annoying songs from the 80’s and early 90’s where the music video is just a large montage of celebrities lip-synching to the song. Then again, it’s a song about excess, so maybe that’s the point? See, always difficult, this guy.
Anyway, there’s a lot to dig into here, and I’m not going to come to a firm conclusion about I See Things Upside Down anytime soon. I think that’s the point, though. This is a nebulous, ungrounded album, one that slips out of the listener’s grasp just as their fingers wrap around it. If anything, I See Things Upside Down has inspired me to finally dive back into Webb’s music, and to investigate his oeuvre of the last eight years.
So here is my rare if only ?/10 review. A firm score or opinion on I See Things Upside Down would be just as contradictory as the album itself.

2004 INO Records
1. I Want A Broken Heart 5:12
2. Better Than Wine 4:45
3. The Strong, The Tempted, & The Weak 5:53
4. Reputation 4:24
5. I Repent 4:29
6. Medication 4:58
7. We Come To You 8:07
8. T-Shirts (What We Should Be Known For) 4:33
9. Ballad In Plain Red 4:42
10. Nothing Is Ever Enough 5:46
11. Lover Part 2 5:48
12. What Is Not Love 5:05

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