I don’t know if Derek Webb reads the early Church Fathers, but his brilliant new album Ctrl sounds like he took their advice. If you spend time in the monastic writings of the early centuries of the Church, sooner or later you’ll come across a sentence like this: “Whenever possible, we should always remember death, for this displaces all cares and vanities, allowing us to guard our intellect and giving us unceasing prayer, detachment from our body and hatred of sin” (St. Hesychios the Priest, no. 155 “On Watchfulness and Holiness” in The Philokalia vol 1. p. 190). It may sound shocking to us, but for the monks of the early church, remembrance of death was an exercise in remembering what’s really real.
I wonder what the monks would think of Ctrl. The music is a hauntingly beautiful mixture of classical guitar, electronic beats, and sacred harp choral singing. But I’m less concerned here with music than with meaning. Mortality seems to be one of the themes of Ctrl. The Charles Wesley hymn quoted in the first track, “And See the Flaming Skies,” echoes the monastic meditation on impending judgment: “Soon as from earth I go, / What will become of me? / Eternal happiness or woe / Must then my portion be.” The rest of the album narrates a life in virtual world as a way of asking, “What is real?” I’m drawing this interpretation from Ryan Smyth‘s tweets from August 30th, in which he outlines the album in terms of a narrative portraying a character’s journey through virtual and real worlds. In songs like “Blocks” and “Pressing on the Bruise”, the character expresses insatiable longings for his fictional reality. When the longings are met (songs: “Attonitos Gloria” and “I Feel Everything”) the character is left numb and dying. (At this point I can’t help but wonder, could this be a commentary on pornography?) In the end (songs: “Reanimate,” “Real Ghost” and “Every Corner”), the character is resurrected into reality and commits to live in true reality rather than false versions of reality.
I’ve only read a few reviews of the album (see NoiseTrade and Relevant), and it’s intentionally mysterious, so I’m not pretending to have an authoritative interpretation of Ctrl. But I’ll hazard a simple guess: I think the point of “Ctrl” is that when we seek control – as we all do with whatever virtual worlds we create for ourselves – we unintentionally separate ourselves from reality. Separation from reality ultimately leads to death. Life comes from dedication to reality. And living in the truth means yielding our control, recognizing that we are not sovereign, and repenting of our attempts to manipulate that which we cannot control.