The Ringing Bell
- reviewed by Russ Breimeier Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2007 1 May
- The End
- The Very End
- A Love That's Stronger Than Our Fear
- I Wanna Marry You All Over Again
- I Don't Want to Fight
- Can't Be Without You
- I for an I
- A Savior on Capitol Hill
- This Too Shall Be Made Right
How does he do it? Since leaving acoustic band Caedmon's Call in 2003, Derek Webb has proven remarkably prolific as a solo artist, releasing seven albums over four years. Okay, so three of those are live recordings or remix projects, and the releases are gradually becoming shorter—The Ringing Bell clocks in at a disappointing 30 minutes. But who cares when Webb continues to offer consistently substantial songwriting in such short time? Most artists struggle to release albums on a two-year schedule, much less write thought-provoking material rooted in both faith and current events.
Equally impressive is the way Webb reinvents his sound with every studio recording, from the country-inflected pop of She Must and Shall Go Free to the experimental rock of I See Things Upside Down, and, most recently, the stripped-down modern folk of Mockingbird. Now he's embraced more of a classic rock style reminiscent of The Beatles and Bob Dylan, causing Webb to call The Ringing Bell his most accessible album yet. I wouldn't go that far, since people aren't exactly clamoring over classic rock any more than the other genres this songwriter has dabbled in. Besides, catchy melodies have always come easy to Webb; they're the common denominator to his music.
If anything has caused Webb to be "inaccessible," it's his brilliant lyricism. Too openly Christian for the masses, too provocative for Christian music, and let's face it, too brainy and introspective for general listeners. But it's precisely why fans of intelligent songcraft love him.
And how fitting that Webb draws from '60s music for The Ringing Bell. After drawing some heat for questioning the average Christian's perspective of war on 2005's Mockingbird, he now elaborates on the subject with an album focused on mankind's aversion to peace or offering forgiveness and unconditional love.
The first verse of "A Love That's Stronger Than Our Fear" asks us if we're willing to die for our faith or lie about it to save our lives (echoes of Columbine). In the next, Webb questions if we'll do whatever it takes to get the truth from someone, including torture (shades of Abu Ghraib). Webb's ultimate point of these opposing scenarios is to consider how we can demonstrate Christ's love in this life: "There is a day that's been inaugurated but has not come/That we can proclaim by showing that there's a better way."
Don't look for direct references or accusations. The bluesy "A Savior on Capitol Hill" doesn't take aim at President Bush or any specific politician, but instead prayerfully expresses frustration with political corruption in general: "Come to D.C. if it be Thy will, because we've never had a savior on Capitol Hill." And "I for an I" insightfully notes that selfish human nature makes loving enemies harder than simple violence and vengeance, but we've "got no choice unless you tell me who Jesus would kill."
Webb is the rare Christian songwriter today calling us to conversation. Rather than recite timeless scriptural truth, he asks listeners to use God's Word in examining current events. More importantly, he does so without pushing an agenda, but rather asking questions for his own benefit as much as any other Christian's. In "I Don't Want to Fight," he acknowledges that we're all capable of violence, but he also maintains we must make the conscious decision not to resort to it.
Especially provocative is the acoustic simplicity of "This Too Shall Be Made Right," which begins with this meaty observation: "People love you most for the things you hate, and hate you for loving the things that you cannot keep straight." Webb continues by evoking Ecclesiastes 3 to declare that we live in a time that tries to rationalize worldwide atrocities like poverty, war, abortion, and genocide ("I don't know the suffering of people outside my front door … I'm trading comfort for human life, and that's not murder, it's suicide"), yet we can look forward to a time for joy in the promise of Jesus' return.
It's not all weighty and earnest. As usual, Webb throws in a couple quirky love songs to his wife (singer/songwriter Sandra McCracken). "I Wanna Marry You All Over Again" playfully longs for the old and new of a relationship, which includes both virtue and instinct: "I wanna meet you and I wanna be friends … I wanna read the Bible and I wanna make out."
Accessibility aside, this is Webb's least overt album when it comes to his faith, but there's no denying that he's using the building blocks of Christian language to continue his devotional discussion. It's short and it's challenging, but The Ringing Bell is further proof that Webb is one of Christian music's most masterful songwriters since Keith Green and Michael Card. Enjoy it today, since another follow-up probably isn't far behind.