I’ve never been a big fan of boxes.
The number one question I get from well-meaning people who discover my obsession is this one: “What kind of music do you like?” There’s just no answering that question. I wish there were. It would make my life that much easier if I could rattle off a couple categories and encapsulate my experience with music. There’s just no way. I usually end up saying something trite like “Oh, I enjoy all kinds of music,” and leave it up to interpretation. Whatever people think I mean is likely included in what I actually mean.
But if I could answer that the way I want to, I’d say that music is bigger than the boxes we try to put it in. We slap marketing terms on it so we can subdivide the iTunes store page, but music – the basic, core idea of music – cannot be subdivided. It cannot be stamped, folded, spindled or mutilated. The best thing about music is that anyone is able to make any music they like, whether they’ve been shoved into a box before or not. The boxes mean nothing. Music is music. It’s the most freeing thing in the world.
I suppose this goes without saying, but people are like that too. We try to label people as Democrats or Republicans, rich or poor, lazy or hard-working, believers or non-believers, on and on. And people are far more complex than all that. I’m constantly having discussions with people about my faith, and the overarching theme of those conversations is a belief in something that does not fit the typical boxes we try to shove it in. People are complicated. God even more so.
Despite that, we still want something as personal and labyrinthine as faith to have an on-off switch, to be a binary. And we often don’t want to listen to people we perceive as on the other side of that binary. I’m talking now, of course, about Derek Webb, who spent half his life making thoughtful Christian music before upending his marriage and deconstructing his faith in a pretty public way. In 2017 Webb made an album called Fingers Crossed that is one of the most harrowing, difficult and beautiful works in the post-faith genre I have ever heard. (It was my number one album of that year.)
The first song on Fingers Crossed was called “Stop Listening,” and many in his former fanbase took that title to heart. But I think it’s important for people of all walks of life to listen to thoughtful discourse on issues like faith and religion and the harm churches do to their members – we can learn so much from people who have different experiences from us. (Full disclosure: I have always had a testy relationship with church, only recently coming back around to the idea. I went through a lot of the questions people like Webb and David Bazan have about faith a long time ago, so I resonate deeply with art that tackles those questions.)
One thing that made Fingers Crossed such a difficult listen was its sense of isolation. Webb had made one-man band records before, but he’d never made one that sounded so alone, so haunted. A spare and slow effort, Fingers Crossed dissected each of its hard emotions carefully, and kept you locked into them. It was an album about grief, and for its follow-up, Webb has decided that the time for grief is over. That’s literally the tagline of his new album, the blistering and joyous Targets.
You’ll hear the difference right away. Targets is a rock record, made with a full band. The guitars are all Webb, and here they snarl and spit and shout in exultation. The junky snare that propels the title track is killer, Webb letting loose with a riff that leaves no doubt where his head is at this time. Hearing this right after “Goodbye for Now,” the painful closer of its predecessor, is like throwing the drapes open on a sunny day. That mood continues through the single “All of Me is Here” and the ‘70s-drenched “The Safest Place.” You can be halfway done with this thing before you catch your breath.
Targets is short – a mere 37 minutes, almost half an hour shorter than Fingers Crossed – but it packs quite a punch. True to its marketing, this album is a celebration of freedom. Webb sounds like he’s done wrestling with a lot of the things that weighed him down last time, and has accepted where he has landed. “All of Me is Here” contains the most headline-grabbing material, as far as his former fanbase is concerned: “Do you remember when we used to sing about Ba’al and Zeus? See, we’re all atheists, I just go one god further than you,” he sings in the opening lines, later adding this about the church and its original sin doctrine: “You don’t need debt relief unless someone convinces you that you’re broke…”
That song positively rocks, and a lot of Webb’s observations and provocations here glide by a lot more charmingly backed by such driving music. “Good Grief” is a masterpiece, a slower song about how worthwhile it is to mourn who you were and what you believed. “It wasn’t wasted time, not a wasted dime or a tear, it’s such a sweet relief, such a good good grief to get here…” Similarly, “Death With Benefits” is a legitimately sad song for an element of his faith he no longer subscribes to: “I miss the myth of death with benefits,” he sings, his newfound uncertainty unbalancing him.
But see? Complex. “Death With Benefits” is a song that only someone who once truly, deeply believed in life after death could or would write, and it shivers with that authenticity. It doesn’t quite fit the box that others will put him in, and neither does the fact that he is now married to Abbie Parker, lead singer of Christian band I Am They. Half of this album consists of love songs, clearly inspired by Parker – my favorite is the jaunty “Plain Sight” – and it’s gratifying to hear Webb so elated with life again. I’m not saying I know anything about their relationship, just that it doesn’t fit the idea of the sad, angry atheist that some try to claim he is.
In fact, none of Targets fits that idea. This is like the more celebratory moments of Quiet Company’s grand We Are All Where We Belong, finding freedom in the choice not to believe. Closer “Come Home To Your Body” is in the same vein as Taylor Muse’s (ahem) musings on belonging to the earth – this life is all we are, this life is all we have, and that’s OK, Webb is saying. Embrace it. Learn to love it. “Finally found a place to live and finally found a place to die.”
Whether or not I agree with his conclusions on Targets is immaterial. I am enjoying every minute of this journey he is on, and I feel grateful to be allowed such an intimate window into it. Targets is a stomper, a barnburner, a rollicking good time, an album about Webb leaving grief behind and appreciating where he is right now. It’s not the final stop on this journey, not by a long shot, but after the pain of deconstruction, it’s lovely to hear him so contented. In many ways this is the opposite of Fingers Crossed – it’s a record full of love, full of community, full of joy. Whatever it took to get here, it wasn’t wasted time.
Check out Targets and other Webb records at www.derekwebb.com.
Next week, a bunch of random records.
See you in line Tuesday morning.