By request (and because now that I’ve listened to the album a dozen more times), I’ve decided to review the rest of the songs on it.
This set of songs were more difficult for me to get a handle on, so to speak. Partly because their meaning was more obscure, partly because I simply didn’t like them upon first listening. But some of them have grown on me since, though there are still one or two holdouts from the mix that I’m not sure I’ll ever fully like, even if I have an appreciation what Webb is trying to accomplish both lyrically and musically.
So here we go:
Now this one at first listen just feels like a shot launched over at good ol’ Fred Phelps of picketing funerals of dead U.S. soldiers fame. And on the surface, I suppose it is. If that’s the case, however, it feels kind of like an easy shot, a strawman argument, if you will. Who could seriously have a problem with or feel convicted about Webb targeting Phelps, right? My main deal, however, came when I started asking myself: who is the narrator of this song? Is it a dead soldier or homosexual man? Maybe. To me, the lyric
How could you do this to me
How could you tell me you love me when you hate me
holds the key. Phelps isn’t going around telling homosexuals that he really does love them. His message is that “God hates fags.” Check out his website. Fred Phelps does, however, claim that he loves Christ. And I think that’s the point Webb is trying to make in this song with its catchy 50’s crooner sound: Jesus Christ loves homosexuals. And when we reject and despise those that Christ loves, we reject Christ himself:
“I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (Matthew 25:45)
So maybe the song isn’t so much about Fred Phelps anymore, but about any of us at any time. Fred Phelps is just one guy with an awful message of hate and a distortion of Christ’s message. But maybe, sometimes, we’re more like Phelps than we want to be at times. We need to tread carefully and be sure that we really are about what we say we’re about: loving Christ and unequivocally loving the people he loves, too.
This is Webb’s libertarian song on the album, in my opinion. It’s a message to any of us who would begin to blur the line between what we owe Caesar and what we owe God. Webb is concerned that we as Christians have given over too much of ourselves to the State, even to the point that our concept of what is right and good is entangled with what the government’s self-protection and its own desires and intents. We must be able to make a clear distinction again between what truly belongs to Caesar and what we owe him, and how we should live as citizens of a completely different kind of Kingdom.
The Proverbial Gun
“The State” transitions musically into this track, which is no accident, as the ideas in them are linked. The satire is thick in this one, showing one possible outcome when we allow the state to tell us what’s right and what’s not. These two lines from “The State” and “The Proverbial Gun,” respectively, follow the same theme:
Right and wrong were written on my heart
And not just in the laws that condemn me
Now with Caesar satisfied I can even do the things
That should offend me
Now I can buy the proverbial gun
And shoot the proverbial child
While my uncle looks me in the eye
And speaks of freedom
What have we become, when we speak of proverbial situations, when the laws of our nation give us freedom to do certain things, but in the end, we are still condemned by the greater law of our conscience? The last line of the song, “Free” is sung with great irony. Freedom is not freedom when we defile our consciences with the implicit permission of the State.
I Love/Hate You
An interesting exploration on the ambiguous nature of the eros relationship between a man and a woman. The lyrics in the verses speak of a powerful, sexual attraction that the man has towards the woman–Webb’s imagery here is particularly poetic and sensual. But the chorus reveals the conflicted nature of his love–he sees himself being pulled in, but part of him wants to continue to be free and unfettered. Their relationship is sweet captivity. This is an honest song about how many men feel about their relationship with their lover.
As an aside, I’ve read analysis of this song elsewhere on the Internet, trying to make it out to be about the relationship between a man and God, but I don’t buy it. In my mind, that’s like trying to say the Song of Solomon is mostly about the love relationship between God and man, too, which although is one possible interpretation, is not, in my opinion, the intended major reading. It was written as Near Eastern erotic poetry between a man and his bride. Webb’s song is in a similar vein.
Becoming a Slave
At first blush, this song is easy to pass over. “Oh, it’s just about the white man’s treatment of the Native Americans when they colonized the New World. That’s water under the bridge.” Webb’s take on it is that our past continues to haunt us:
There’s always a price to pay
It’s gotta hit somebody’s back
All too often, we’re still saying, “well, they’re not like us, so it’s okay.” Injustice still cries out everywhere in our land and even beyond our shores. But if the faces look different than ours, it’s easy to ignore that cry. I love the last few lines, sung in the mode of an African-American spiritual/protest song:
We want justice in the system
The strong fend for the weak
We want justice in the system
We won’t accept defeat
We want justice in the system
Let’s reach a higher peak
We want justice in the system, system, system
A poignant and convicting song about the journey of a dead homeless man to “Heaven.” Only when he gets there, he finds to his disappointment, it’s pretty much like his life on earth was. Here’s the horror: what if heaven really was like this–what if you only had what you came in with? Those of us who were rich in this world would be well off, but the have-nots would still be have-nots. Obviously, that’s not the case, but it should give us pause. What are we doing in this life for the least of these? How do we store up treasure in heaven? By our deeds in this life, by our care for those in need. As the saying goes, we should take care that we’re not so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good to those who need us the most.
What You Give Up to Get It
A great little song about discernment and knowing the limit. Where’s the line in the sand? When does what we feel we need to have go too far, cause too much damage. When is it no longer worth it?
Like style made by slaves
Like bribes to throw the race
Like women who know their place
Like an Indian casino or a tank of unleaded
It’s never quite worth what you give up to get it
We love to take advantage of all of the “perks” but when do we stop and seriously consider what it costs our own souls to keep consuming, or to achieve certain things that we want?
American Flag Umbrella
Despite the hype surrounding “What Matters More,” this may the most important song on this album.
The scope of this song is wide, but it focuses mainly on the prostitution of our values for expediency or because of our fears and biases.
I’ve looked through the eyes of my father
I’ve walked through Lincoln’s backyard
And there’s still a backseat
When you ride on the bus through this town
There’s color on everyone
In this song, he addresses everything from the way we still treat homosexuals and blacks, as well as our fight against our “terrorist enemies” overseas, and how because of these things, we are in danger of losing who we really are and who we are supposed to be.
Oppression is always oppression
No matter the reasons or means
For skin or for sex,
By stares or by fists it’s the same
There are blinders on everyone
Yet though Webb has been critical of the direction America has been heading, he still holds out a lot of hope for positive change. He does see a way out.
So we lie beneath a tree of no color
Like an American flag umbrella
It keeps the elements out
And it’s stuck to the ground in this place
But there’s room for everyone
I know a way out of hell
We raise all our enemies’ children
After they’ve murdered ours
We affix all their scars to our walls
So there’s heartbreak for everyone
My favorite lines are these: “I know a way out of hell/We raise all our enemies’ children/After they’ve murdered ours/We affix all their scars to our walls/So there’s heartbreak for everyone”
This ties back to “Cobra Con,” which speaks of “out-loving and out-suffering them.” Is this the easiest way off of the destructive road we are on? No. Is it the way that Jesus preached? Perhaps so. It’s the way of suffering and heartbreak, but maybe at the end, there will be healing for everyone.
In the end it will all be OK
That’s what the wise men tell us
So if it’s not ok then it’s not the end, oh my friends
There’s hope for everyone