Derek Webb – Targets
It’s arduous work to be a professional autobiographer: to look at the world and describe it when your life is far from over, and all aspects of it are subject to change. The words, thoughts, and beliefs of yesterday might not resonate with your current frame of reference, and in the public eye it’s hard to position yourself as a completely different person without some amount of concern, confusion, or scrutiny.
These thoughts were shared with me and 19 other people by singer/songwriter Derek Webb back in March 2019 at a house show in southern Missouri. A few years prior, Webb released his ninth record to date, Fingers Crossed. Described as “a tale of two divorces,” the album was a vulnerable account of grief and regret associated with the end of a relationship, the pain of losing friends and family, and the highs and lows of spiritual deconstruction (or “spiritual auditing,” as Derek preferred to call it. My editor Ryan Getz stated in his 2017 review that the album “could alienate some of Webb’s remaining CCM demographic fans once and for all.”
While Fingers Crossed was indeed the final nail in the coffin for some fans of his work with Caedmon’s Call or his earlier solo albums, I would argue that Derek also gained a new audience with this record—listeners who strongly resonated with its lyricism or appreciated his honesty. Grief, as well as airing and sharing it, may eventually lead to a season of healing and reconstruction, and Targets, which is the “defiantly joyous” follow-up to Fingers Crossed, chronicles just that and then some.
Targets spans nine tracks over the course of approximately 37 minutes, a little over half the length of its predecessor. Similarly, while Fingers Crossed was primarily driven by a well-crafted, organic blend of acoustic guitar and electronic elements, Targets is almost exclusively played on an electric guitar, backed by a stellar band. This sonic shift is best highlighted in the first few seconds of opener and title track “Targets,” as a reversed sample of Fingers Crossed closer “Goodbye, for Now” is quickly followed by gritty guitar riffs that initially reminded me of Jack White’s “Sixteen Saltines.” Webb also wastes no time lyrically, singing “Targets on the back of every god I ever left / Anger, hope, and gratefulness.” This is echoed in lines pertaining to “every girl I’ve ever loved” and “every friend I’ve ever lost.”
One of the central lyrical themes of this track, and the album as a whole, is the notion that you don’t have to leave everything behind in seasons of change; you have the agency to take the good parts (your “targets,” things you still aim for) with you while you torch the strawmen of your past. Cuts like “State Change” and the somber yet grandiose “Good Grief” also chronicle this new season of life. On the latter Webb expresses gratitude for the low points in his life that eventually led him to higher ones, singing “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.”
Elsewhere, Derek touches upon his frustration with religious doctrines like depravity and original sin, and how they can lead one to be disconnected from one’s body, intellect, and presence to the world around them. “All of Me Is Here” might sonically sound similar to the title track, but the vocal harmonies in the chorus, the massive bridge, and lines like “You don’t need debt relief unless someone convinces you that you’re broke” distinguish it as one of the album’s best cuts. Likewise, closer “Come Home (To Your Body)” references this autonomy as Webb sings “You know the number, baby / Pick up the phone,” with a joy scarcely present on his previous nine albums.
While other tracks pertain to the refuge and excitement of love, such as the borderline alt-country “The Safest Place” and “Plain Sight,” and the energetic “Valentine’s Day,” the most intimate moment on Targets (and arguably the most reminiscent of his older albums) comes in the form of “Death With Benefits,” a piano-driven ballad where Derek reflects on his prior religious convictions. Backed by a swelling string-section and full band, Webb chronicles moments where he finds himself “doubting his doubts,” as “uncertainty’s blade is a very close shave, and it cuts in every direction.” The ability to admit that certainty is never a guarantee is frightening to those who crave it, but Derek walks the listener through these feelings with the respect they deserve. Additional allegories involving broken clocks, imaginary friends, and nostalgia with effects similar to whiskey all further cement this song as the highlight of the back half of the record, which stands out as one of the best tracks in his discography.
In spite of this uncertainty, however, Targets reminds its audience that both healing and reconstruction are processes, ones that you don’t have to walk through alone.
Derek has referred to Targets as the closest thing to ministry in his career, and this especially rang true when he debuted some of these songs at the aforementioned house show. Like church, I was surrounded by complete strangers, snacking on finger foods and red wine, singing songs, and learning what it means to grow and change. The key difference, obviously, was the wide swath of philosophical and spiritual backgrounds in the room. Yet in a way it felt more genuine and church-like than any congregation I’ve set foot in previously. I believe these feelings will be universal among his listeners with Targets. On all accounts it’s a stunning body of work and a perfect complement to its predecessor. Some fans of Fingers Crossed (an album Derek says he rarely wants to return to after playing it at his shows front to back for a year) might find Webb’s sonic shift difficult to grasp, but its music and lyrics will ring true with anyone who finds themselves in a season of defiantly joyous change.