This week Derek Webb released his latest album, I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry, and I Love You. The album is more explicitly about the church than some of his recent work, and it marks a return to his roots, both thematically and musically.
Back in the nineties, Derek belonged to the Christian band Caedmon’s Call, and he wrote most of their folksy introspective songs. In 2003, he left Caedmon’s to work on his solo project, She Must and Shall Go Free. He dedicated that album to the church. She Must and Shall Go Free was equal parts rebuke and encouragement. The gospel isn’t just for lost people. It’s for Christians too. The album rebukes an American church that ignores its own sin and tries to earn merit with God. It encourages the church to rely only on the grace of Christ.
As his albums piled higher, Derek continued to speak words of rebuke, but the word of encouragement started to disappear. He started getting more political in some of his songs, taking a few shots at the Republican Party. This annoyed some of his more conservative fans. He also started to emphasize social issues that he felt Christians were neglecting, which made some long-time fans feel that he was minimizing the gospel.
His 2009 album, Stockholm Syndrome, sparked controversy because one of the songs included a dirty word. But it wasn’t just the dirty word. In the song, Derek accused Christians of worrying more about homosexuality than poverty. His message and his choice of words cost him a number of fans. Touring with the openly gay Jennifer Knapp didn’t win any of those fans back.
Stockholm Syndrome was a solid album, but its style actually made it easier for fans to walk away. Derek’s older music had an acoustic rawness to it. By 2009, Derek had begun experimenting with his sound, and Stockholm Syndrome features synthesized music, a techno beat, and distorted vocals. It’s really good, if you like that sort of thing, but unfortunately many of his old fans didn’t like that sort of thing.
This new album, I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry, and I Love You, seems like an attempt to reconnect with some of those old fans. He explores some of the same themes that he did in She Must and Shall Go Free, albeit in a more personal voice. The album’s sound also reengages his folk roots. Derek was inspired to write this album as he considered the ten-year anniversary of She Must and Shall Go Free, and the album really does feel like a homecoming. The prodigal son has returned, and with this album he says that he’s sorry.
Of course many fans will want to know what exactly he’s apologizing for. I’ve listened to the album and listened to him talk about it. He isn’t necessarily retracting anything he’s said. Instead he seems to apologize for how he’s said things. I’ve been listening to Derek’s songs for almost twenty years, and I can trace theological, artistic, and political growth through his albums. This album signals a development in his emotional maturity. He doesn’t scold his listeners in this album. There’s no regret about what he’s said in the past, but we hear regret about how he’s said some of those things. His almost-forty-year-old self seems a bit ashamed of the brashness of his younger days.
I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry, and I Love You is a fine album that once-upon-a-time fans ought to give a chance. It will seem familiar, but in one sense it’s still different than his earlier work. The album communicates a certain weariness. It sounds like the cares of the world have tired Derek and he needed to return to a place of refuge. He has more longing for that which will be and less interest in what we ought to do.
This latest album is a worthy sequel to She Must and Shall Go Free, but the earlier album still remains Derek’s best work. She Must and Shall Go Free will haunt its listener’s soul. If you’re not familiar with Derek’s work, start there. Then listen to his newest album.
Collin Garbarino is an assistant professor of history at Houston Baptist University.