Derek Webb can certainly not be accused of resting on his musical laurels. Since leaving Caedmon's Call in 2003, he has released four studio albums, each having a distinctly different sound from his previous work. With The Ringing Bell, his latest, Derek proves that he is not afraid to rock and/or roll. Caedmon's fans shouldn't be surprised, as Derek frequently brought a bit of rock to the mix (for examples, see "What You Want" off Long Line of Leavers or live renditions of U2's "In God's Country?"). Although The Ringing Bell is more in the vein of pop/rock (a la the Beatles, one of Derek's stated influences) rather than something harder, Derek has created a solid and satisfying album.
Thematically, The Ringing Bell has some continuation from Mockingbird, his previous effort, in that it discusses how the Christian faith plays out in a "real-world" setting -- that is, as Derek asks, if Christians have been saved from our sins by Jesus, what exactly have we been saved for? Particularly, the issue of peace predominates the songs of The Ringing Bell. Although some of the lyrics are a bit more opaque than the storytelling of his previous albums, Derek does conjure up some vivid images. After two slightly-mellow (but good) opening tracks, "A Love That's Stronger Than Our Fear" cranks up the distorted guitar and unleashes the rock, with lyrical allusions to topics ranging from Christian martyrdom to the alleged abuses at Guantanamo Bay. "Name" decries the perils and drawbacks of using labels to summarize -- and marginalize -- people and groups. "A Savior on Capitol Hill" raises questions about whether our loyalties ultimately rest with Caesar or with Jesus. As Derek noted in a recent interview, The Ringing Bell was intended to be "a better Trojan Horse," using the up-tempo musical arrangements to smuggle in weightier themes. On the slower end of the spectrum, "I Don't Want To Fight" is Derek's jangly recanting of his personal tendency to pursue arguments at all costs. The album also has a couple of songs concerning his wife Sandra, including "I Wanna Marry You All Over Again," truly one of the album's standout tracks. The album closes with the sparse "This Too Shall Be Made Right," which offers a hopeful refrain in response to the multitude of wrongs that pervade our existence.
I've been listening to the album for a few weeks now, and I'm still not sure where The Ringing Bell ranks among the Derek Webb discography. It's definitely near the top of the list, though, and is a must-have for fans of quality music. And if the music alone wasn't enough, Derek teamed up with Portland Studios to release a graphic novel for the album -- and it's actually pretty cool, too. The graphic novel contains all the lyrics, presented with various images inspired by/related to the songs. The result is kind of neat, in that both the album and the graphic novel enhance each other.