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Sounds like … the alt-country and folk of Wilco and Sufjan Stevens, with echoes of Elliot Smith, Paul Simon, Caedmon's Call, Jars of Clay, and The Beatles.At a glance … Derek Webb's third solo effort continues to expertly question and wrestle with the most challenging issues of Christian culture today, though musically speaking, Mockingbird is also his most sedate album.Track Listing Mockingbird A New Law A King & A Kingdom I Hate Everything (But You) Rich Young Ruler A Consistent Ethic of Human Life My Enemies Are Men Like Me Zeros Ones In God We Trust Please, Before I Go Love Is Not Against the Law
Let's start by acknowledging Derek Webb as one of today's best songwriters in Christian music, and quite possibly the bravest. He's also one of the most prolific. It's been less than three years since he left Caedmon's Call to release his critically acclaimed solo debut She Must and Shall Go Free. In 2004 he offered both a live album and his sophomore effort, I See Things Upside Down. A mere thirteen months later, and Webb has already finished Mockingbird.
Ten songs and forty minutes, this is a leaner project than Webb's previous works, but it's also his gutsiest—and that's saying something about a man who's already sung about the shortcomings of the church and Christian culture. Webb insists that he's not trying to sound self-righteous or anger listeners, simply wanting to spark dialogue on issues that no one else in Christian music touching these days. For this, Webb deserves to be commended, as long as he continues to root his ideas in Scripture while tempering them with his own humility.
The album title serves as a metaphor for how, like mockingbirds, we are called to imitate Christ's teachings—namely loving our neighbors—enemies included—as ourselves. This is brilliantly reflected in "Love Is Not Against the Law," which builds upon Jesus' teaching about turning the other cheek: "You cannot choose your friends, but you choose your enemies/And what if they were one and the same/Could you find a way to love them both the same/To give them both your name?"
Webb makes provocative points, fearless in his wording. "In God We Trust" boldly challenges our relationship with the Lord, through success and failure, justice and tragedy, and "even when the blessing is a curse." In response to the poor of this world, he makes us consider the "Rich Young Ruler" of Luke 18. Christ wants "the things you just can't give me," but are we truly willing to give up everything for him? "A New Law" is particularly stimulating, as Webb notes how readily we cling to the law instead of the freedom found in Christ, preferring to be told what to think rather than think for ourselves—a sad but true perspective on human nature and Christian culture.
Mockingbird is described as an album about social justice. It generally is, though not quite as specific as Natalie Grant and Caedmon's Call have been about human trafficking and India's caste system, respectively. But for a couple songs, Webb does take issue with Bush supporters and the Iraq war. With "A King & A Kingdom," he rightly notes, "My first allegiance is not to a flag, a country, or a man/My first allegiance is not to democracy or blood/It's to a king and a kingdom." When he says that Christ is not a white, middle-class Republican, he's not taking a swipe at the party, but reminding us that Christ is not bound by politics. More controversial is "My Enemies Are Men Like Me," which at least begins from Christ's perspective when he first sings, "I would rather die than to take your life." But later he says, "Peace by war is like purity by way of fornication/It's like telling someone murder is wrong and then showing them by way of execution." Still, despite Christ's challenging command to love our enemies, some would argue that God allows for the unfortunate necessity of war.
As lyrically fascinating as Mockingbird is, the album falls short musically. Those who felt I See Things Upside Down was too mellow will find this one more frustrating. Vaguely reminiscent of Wilco, Sufjan Stevens, and Elliot Smith, the songs are less experimental, more homogenous, and lack the hooks of his previous efforts. Not to say that it isn't melodic, listenable, or well recorded, but nothing actively grabs the attention either. Oddly enough, it's the two love songs to his wife ("Please, Before I Go" and "I Hate Everything [But You]") that come off the most sedate when you'd think they'd be more accessible.
So Mockingbird is remarkable and admirable, but is it enjoyable? It's a brilliantly worded album, but since radio probably won't touch it, will it matter to anyone who isn't a fan already? Thank God we have Derek Webb the crusader and reformer, but I for one am beginning to miss his catchier and more tempered side.