This article continues our series on Derek Webb’s latest CD. We are reviewing every song from the The Ringing Bell. This post is written by Southern Seminary student Rick Mansfield from This Lamp. Previous posts from this series can be found under the category Derek Webb.
There seems to be no anxiety that is quite like the anxiety of having feelings for someone, only for that someone to belong to someone else. Such thoughts take me back to junior high and high school days…okay…maybe a couple of times in college… This experience has been common to most of us ever since the demise of arranged marriages a century or two ago and is also a theme in Derek Webb’s song “Can’t Be Without You” from his latest album, The Ringing Bell.
There are only two verses, the chorus and a bridge in this song, so let me present all the words at once:
I’m not scared to look into your eyes
even with him standing right beside you
love is hard, especially when you’re not mine
so here’s to you, you can take my heart ’cause I’ve lost my mind
I can’t be with you but I can’t be without you
there’s not a doubt in my mind
I can’t be with you but I can’t be without you
wherever I go you’re always close behind
I’m not ashamed to tell you how I feel
that’s not a crime even in Nashville
it’s dangerous to keep it all behind your eyes
’cause we both know the truth is stronger than the lies
behind the words I say to you
there is something bluer than your eyes
Well, there are a couple of themes going on here, aren’t there? “Unrequited love” is one of the four main categories of love songs, and surely this kind of song about feelings for someone who belongs to someone else must be a subgenre of that. But there’s also this element of the kind of song in which a person is going to express his love for someone regardless of the outcome. I think of the classic Boston song, “Amanda” as a standard in this regard, but “Can’t Be Without You” is certainly no “Amanda.” Hold that thought because I’ll come back to it.
As preparation for writing about “Can’t Be Without You,” I listened to the entire album The Ringing Bell a couple of times so that I could get a feel for the song in its overall context. Unfortunately, this approach doesn’t easily work because I was left scratching my head as to why a song like “Can’t Be Without You,” would follow a song like “I Wanna Marry You All Over Again.” Fortunately, I found an interview with Derek Webb in which he talks not only about about the album, but every song on it as well.
Not only is “I Wanna Marry You All Over Again” about Derek’s relationship with his wife, Sandra, but so is “Can’t Be Without You.” The latter song, he explains, is about when he first met his future wife. At the time he met her and began having feelings for her, she was “with” someone else–a friend of his. Well, that makes sense for understanding the song, I suppose, but it really doesn’t explain why it’s on this particular album.
In the interview mentioned above, the other person asserts that all the songs on The Ringing Bell are relational in nature. Okay. But Derek also explains that this was a song, among three others, that he wrote very early on in his relationship with Sandra, and it was originally intended to be on the Caedmon’s Call album Long Line of Leavers. Maybe it would have fit better had it been included there. In my opinion, it doesn’t really mesh well with these other songs–it comes across as an afterthought. “Well we need to put it somewhere,” I can almost hear him saying. And in reality, that’s part of the problem with The Ringing Bell as a whole. The whole album seems like an afterthought.
But back to the song. In the first verse, he’s pretty bold. He’s got these feelings for this girl and he doesn’t even care that his friend is standing right there. There’s an unspokenness between the two would-be lovers as they look into each others’ eyes–a knowing feeling that can’t be voiced…yet.
The chorus says it all: he can’t be with her because she belongs to his friend. Yet he longs for her, he yearns for her. As he says at the end of the first verse, “you can take my heart ’cause I’ve lost my mind.” And as I said at the beginning of this post, these are feelings that are extremely relatable to most of us who have experienced the “dating culture” at one point or another. Feelings of helplessness and even jealosy are often an inherent part of the process.
In the second verse, he decides that he is not ashamed to tell her of his feelings. He doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with it, and he encourages her to acknowledge it, too. It’s dangerous for her to not express the mutual feelings of affection that she has for him. What is she going to do? Stay with the other guy even though she has feelings for someone else?
On the surface, the song should find sympathy from all of us who have experienced similar circumstances. But it doesn’t. In the end, a song is about more than words. It’s also about delivery, and the problem with this song, like many on the album is that “Can’t Be Without You” fails to deliver.
The Ringing Bell has a couple of good songs. I actually like “I Wanna Marry You All Over Again,” and I like “A Savior on Capitol Hill.” The words in “This Too Shall Be Made Right” struck a chord with me, but the delivery–like that in most songs on the album–is off. Throughout most of these songs, I can’t feel any emotion from Derek. This is not the edgy Derek Webb found in earlier projects. Was it just time to come up with the next set of songs, and these had to do?
There’s a gross lack of feeling when I listen to “Can’t Be Without You.” I mean, my gosh if I never hear James Blunt’s “Beautiful” again, it will be too soon, but at least he is believable. And when I think of the kind of theme that’s in this song, I think of a classic like “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” by Joe Jackson. When I hear that song, I can feel his angst. The only angst I can get from “Can’t Be Without You” is that the album is too short and needs another song and this will have to do.
Knowing the context of this post, I feel I should at least briefly try to touch upon a biblical perspective. But there’s a problem. This is a song about the complicated situations that arise from dating relationships. And contrary to countless youth ministry sermons, the Bible doesn’t speak directly to dating. In the ancient world and up to a century or two ago, all marriages were arranged. “Dating” is a modern contrivance, and although I participated in it myself, the older I get, the less favorable I am toward it.
I’m less favorable to it because I see its inherent problems. We are “attracted” to someone, and for those of us of the male species, this is usually initially related to the outward appearance of the female of the species, regardless of what we say otherwise.
Such feelings when expressed in biblical stories rarely have good outcomes:
One day when Samson was in Timnah, one of the Philistine women caught his eye. When he returned home, he told his father and mother, “A young Philistine woman in Timnah caught my eye. I want to marry her. Get her for me.”
His father and mother objected. “Isn’t there even one woman in our tribe or among all the Israelites you could marry?” they asked. “Why must you go to the pagan Philistines to find a wife?” But Samson told his father, “Get her for me! She looks good to me.”
(Judges 14:1-3 NLT)
David’s son Absalom had a beautiful sister named Tamar, and David’s son Amnon was infatuated with her. Amnon was frustrated to the point of making himself sick over his sister Tamar because she was a virgin, but it seemed impossible to do anything to her.
(2 Sam 13:1-2 HCSB)
These are but two examples, which I won’t take the time to comment on, and if you aren’t familiar with the stories, you can read the greater context to find out the end results for yourself. The problem with dating as it’s experienced in our society is that after we are attracted to someone initially, we then go through various rituals “getting to know” each other. Then, if one or both participants decides the person he or she got to know isn’t really all that appealing (although it will be said “It’s not you; it’s me“) they each move onto the next person and so it goes. And of course, this idea of a string of ongoing courtships often gets taken into marriage, and now we have individuals who have strings of spouses with the accompanying greater expense and heartache.
From a practical and realistic perspective, I don’t know how to put the dating genie back into the bottle. Even the Christian-based courtship models only work if there’re enough families who are willing to go along with that kind of thing. Otherwise marital options get narrowed pretty quickly. But I do feel like such things need to be discussed. The inherent problems with dating need to be addressed with those who are involved in the process.
I don’t begrudge Derek’s relationship to Sandra. If I had been counseling him at the time I may very well have told him to express his feelings to her. But with the way things stand, the gain of one relationship may come at the expense of another. To borrow from the title of the old Cars song, I also stole “My Best Friend’s Girl.” But my relationship with a friend I had known since elementary school was never the same. As I’m sure Derek would agree, I’d rather have my wife if I had to choose between the two, but it’s a shame that I had to choose.
And who knows, maybe in biblical times, individuals harbored secret feelings for those betrothed to others. I’m sure they did. But I also know marraige relationships and community relationships were more stable then than they are now.
As for “Can’t Be Without You,” I can be without it. Really, it’s not even good poetry, and “that’s not a crime even in Nashville” may be one of the most inane lines I’ve heard in a very long time. But in the end, Derek’s half-hearted delivery spoiled what should have been a common relatable experience. It doesn’t capture my imagination like the other songs I mentioned and it lacks the sentiment of “I Wanna Marry You All Over Again.”
Posted By Rick Mansfield