A Review of Derek Webb’s “Can’t Be Without You”

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:

[Verse 1]
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

[Chorus]
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

[Verse 2]
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

[Chorus]

[Bridge]
behind the words I say to you
there is something bluer than your eyes

[Chorus]

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

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10 Responses to A Review of Derek Webb’s “Can’t Be Without You”

  1. Matt H says:

    I’ve got to be honest, I’ve been pretty disappointed with these reviews. I’m sure every reviewer here would at least in theory eschew a relativistic approach to evaluating the worth of a particular work of art, but in practice, this review in particular is a perfect example of an absolutely standard-less, this-is-how-I-feel understanding [or better, feeling] of a song. Every artist, I think, gets most frustrated with those reviewers who simply give there own personal opinion, without holding a song or an album up to any sort of objective or external standard. Could the reviewer here please articulate what he means by “the problem with this song, like many on the album is that ‘Can’t Be Without You’ fails to deliver”? Musically or artistically (i.e. technically) speaking what EXACTLY do you mean? Also, what are you referring to by saying, “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.” As long as we’re giving personal opinions, I personally think this is one of Derek’s most emotionally invested albums yet, and “This Too Shall Be Made Right” made me weep at first listen. So what PRECISELY is “off” about these songs? The review fails to tell me anything.

  2. R. Mansfield says:

    Matt, thanks for your candid evaluation of my review.

    First, I’d like to say that there actually IS a certain amount of relativism to one’s appreciation of any kind of art. It’s like ice cream. You like chocolate; I like chocolate mint. It doesn’t mean one of us is right and the other is wrong. This is appropriate relativism, if you will.

    However, having said that, you’re right that it doesn’t mean that art can’t be weighed against certain standards.

    And I felt that I used standards in my evaluations. I mentioned at least three other well-known songs in the same genre as “Can’t Be Without You.” To me, those songs are standards–one of which I admittedly don’t even like–and I didn’t feel that Webb’s contribution stood up to the quality, power and feeling of any of them.

    But my overall complaint has to do with Webb’s delivery, and I think I stated this fairly clearly. He sings “Can’t Be Without You” and a number of the songs on the album with very little feeling. Songs like this should hit the listener squarely at an emotional level. It just doesn’t do that for me. Maybe it does for you, and for you he’s chocolate mint. But to my ear, he sounds like he’s on valium for about half the album.

    As for “This Too Shall Be Made Right,” the words should make us weep as you say. The problem is poor delivery—a delivery devoid of emotion/feeling—that ruins it for this reviewer.

    My guess is, brother, that you really liked this album, and my somewhat negative review has ticked you off because you feel I just don’t get it or I’m wrong or whatever. That’s okay. I understand that. Fortunately, there’s 29 other flavors in the parlor to choose from, and odds are that there are some which we both would like together.

  3. Matt H says:

    R.,

    I know what you are getting at about relativism in appreciation of art, and, to some degree, there is some truth in that. However, as an artist, I don’t believe the ultimate worthiness or goodness of art is relative. Such is an extremely modern (i.e. postmodern) notion. I may like my chocolate ice cream with mint, but because I have BAD TASTE, I may prefer freezer burnt Sam’s Choice over Coldstone Creamery.

    You say that you did use standards in your evaluation in citing “three other well-known songs in the same genre as ‘Can’t Be Without You.'” And you say that you “didn’t feel that Webb’s contribution stood up to the quality, power and feeling of any of them.” HOW SO? Precisely, how so? To simply state that is no comparison or measurement at all.

    As for the “feeling” in the delivery of these songs, again I say, what exactly are you looking for? Derek sings in a certain style that doesn’t really sound like anyone else, so emotion sounds a bit different coming from his voice. What exactly do you expect emotion and feeling to sound like?

    As I said in my first comment, I, having followed every one of Derek’s albums from their release dates till now, find The Ringing Bell to be one of Derek’s MOST “feeling” albums.

    As for “This Too Shall Be Made Right,” I thought the delivery was absolutely perfect for the content of the song. He sings it like some sort of lament, and the listener gets the feeling that Derek REALLY feels the reality that “this too” is NOT YET made right. But it will be. He sings it like a pilgrim, not like a glorified saint, as he should. And I say “Amen!” and weep along with the song, having been brought to a place of truly FEELING my longing for the consummation of all things.

    And…to be honest, I don’t think “you-say-potayto-I-say-potahto” (you like chocolate, I like mint, etc.) is really very helpful at all in trying to have an intelligent discussion. (I’m NOT saying you aren’t intelligent, btw.)

    I hope you don’t feel like I’m picking on you too harshly, but those who venture into the “scary” world of critics and reviewers should expect their readers to be hard on them at times.

    I find it interesting that so many Christian living room reviewers fail to give this album anything close to the acclaim given it by the venerable indie magazine, Paste: “The Ringing Bell is a perfectly concise musical statement from an artist whose auspicious moment has finally arrived. Easily one of the year’s best records.” (June 07, p. 69)

    (BTW, sorry about all the caps everywhere; I’m too lazy to encode italics and such…)

  4. R. Mansfield says:

    Matt, you may call me a “Christian living room reviewer,” but I’m the one who’s the consumer. I’m the one that paid for Webb’s album in its entirety (bought it on iTunes). If my evaluation is less valuable to you than the “venerable Indie magazine Paste,” then so be it, but don’t forget that I’m part of the target audience, and in my view, that gives merit to my evaluation.

    Since your internet profile says you like “anything from C. S. Lewis,” let me quote from his essay, “Good Work and Good Works” from The World’s Last night and Other Essays:

    In the highest aesthetic circles one now hears nothing about the artist’s duty to us. It is all about our duty to him. He owes us nothing; we owe him “recognition,” even though he has never paid the slightest attention to our tastes, interests or habits. If we don’t give it to him, our name is mud. In this shop, the customer is always wrong (p. 79).

    Many modern novels, poems, and pictures which we are browbeaten into “appreciating,” are not good work because they do not work at all. They are mere puddles of spilled sensibility or reflection. When an artist is in the strict sense of working, he of course takes into account taste, interests, and capacity of the audience. These, no less than the language, the marble, or the paint, are part of his raw material; to be used, tamed, sublimated, not ignored or defied. Haughty indifference to them is not genius nor integrity; it is laziness and incompetence.

    What Lewis says above applies equally to music, although I don’t wish to be quite so harsh on Webb’s album as the words in the last sentence. Pardon my armchair psychoanalysis, but my hunch is that you as an artist feel a certain professional camaraderie with Webb, perhaps you even look up to him. So to some extent you have personalized my negative review of this particular song and some of his delivery on the rest of the album. You like the album, you “get” the album, so you are incensed at my criticism of it. But the problem with this is exactly what Lewis was getting at–that in modern culture, it’s become all about the artist and the experience of the audience no longer counts. If this is not postmodern thinking, I don’t know what is.

    I agree that there is such a thing as taste when it comes to music as well as understanding. A simple music appreciation course would go a long way for most folks in this regard. But I would also direct you to another of Lewis’ books: An Experiment in Criticism in which he eschews the standards of evaluative criticism in favor of the actual reading experience. That may sound postmodern to your ear, but it’s really not. He still makes distinctions between good and bad literature, but the emphasis is on whether a particular work brings out the “good reader” (for which he has definition) in the person reading the book.

    Therefore, to go back to my ice cream analogy, yes, I would agree that the person who eats freezer burned Sam’s Choice over Cold Stone Creamery has poor taste. But that doesn’t change the fact that Cold Stone Creamery also offers both chocolate and chocolate mint and one may be preferred by one person and the other by another person.

    So while I maintain there is a certain level of subjectivity to musical likes and dislikes (and to claim this is a postmodern contrivance seems a bit absurd and historically naive), I tried very hard to create some solid reasons for my evaluation of Webb’s song. I compared to other songs in the same genre and I noted what I felt to be a less than enthusiastic delivery.

    As I said, even on a level of writing, this is not good poetry. I’ve got a degree in English and I teach literature (among other subjects) at the college level, so I believe I can make that claim.

    And granted, I understand that each musician has his own style so comparisons with other musicians can only go so far. But I plainly stated “This is not the edgy Derek Webb found in earlier projects.” Ultimately, I don’t feel like this album stands up to earlier works by Derek Webb.

    His voice does not have the emotion and intensity I’ve heard in previous albums. I also teach writing, and I stress to my students that elements like tone, inflection, and voice make all the difference in writing that seeks to appeal at the emotional level. These are the tools for the writer. Vocal delivery is the tool of the singer, and I don’t believe Webb reaches his earlier potential in this album. Ringing the Bell has some very good spots, but it’s admittedly short in length and some of the songs seem to be thrown in for the sake of running time. And the delivery seems to be a shrug of the shoulders.

    That’s not to say that artists can’t change their style, but such changes don’t always work. I consider Elvis Costello to be a modern musical genius, but some of his experimental offerings simply have not worked. His odd temporary foray into country and western music simply isn’t high on my list of songs to listen to once again.

    I didn’t mention it in my review, but some of the songs on Ringing the Bell—especially the political offerings—have a U2-esque quality to them. I like this. And I don’t think it would be fair to compare Webb to Bono who is obviously more experienced and well-established. Nevertheless, a glaring difference again goes back to the delivery. When Bono sings on some of these themes, I feel his intensity. I believe his sincerity even when I disagree with some of his points. I’m certainly not saying Webb isn’t sincere. I’m sure he is because of what I know of him. However, if I didn’t know about him, I might not be so easily convinced.

  5. Matt H says:

    R.,

    I hope you’ll forgive me if I bow out (by long silence, I suppose I already have). I started a new job last week and so lost steam on this thread. I’ll say simply two things: 1) that I’ve read Lewis on art and love what he has to say and 2) I love U2 but don’t necessarily think Bono sings with any more conviction than Derek does on this album; I think it’s possibly a “style” issue.

    Thanks,

    Matt H

  6. dave says:

    I felt that this review was basically used as a platform to float your own opinions on something that wasn’t even a point of the song. I think this is one of the worst reviews I’ve ever read, and I would say that no matter who it was a review of.

  7. R. Mansfield says:

    Dave thanks for your opinion of my “own opinions” as you call my review.

    Can you be more specific in your criticism?

    What is the specific content for the word “something” in your comment above?

    And is there anything specific in my review that would make you say it was one of the worst reviews you’ve ever read?

    Thanks, brother, for your time.

  8. dave says:

    I felt like you took a simple song about the beginnings of a relationship and a person’s personal experience, and turned it into a platform to expound your own views on dating and courtship, which to be honest, really has nothing to do with the song. I felt like just because this is a “christian” article, you felt the need to make a moral judgment of the song and give correction.

    I also agree with Matt H that you seem to define the sincerity and success of the artist based on whether you personally like their music or not, and while there is something to be said for an audience enjoying the art, there is also much to be said about an artist making the art he feels compelled to whether everyone enjoys it or not.

  9. R. Mansfield says:

    Dave, thanks for the clarification.

    Part of your criticism is valid in my opinion, and part is not.

    Regarding the discussion of dating, I freely admit that it was an afterthought of the review after I had essentially written most of it. You’re right that this is a simple song about dating—one that I let Tony assign me, and not necessarily one that I picked on my own because when he asked, I had not yet listened to the entire album. And as I said in my review, the Bible doesn’t really speak directly to dating because of different customs of courtship between our era and that of the ancient world.

    But because of the nature of this forum—“Said at Southern Seminary”—I felt a bit obligated to have at least some kind of biblical interaction. But as I said above, it was a bit of an afterthought and written after the bulk of the review was completed.

    So having said that, let me make it perfectly clear that this review was not merely a platform to promote my own views about dating. Dating is not really something that is at the top of my radar of concerns. However, check back with me in about 15 years when my soon-to-be daughter is a teenager.

    So, for a moment, if you can, jettison the whole discussion of dating from the post and stay with just the review of the song in its pure form.

    In regard to the song itself, and my criticism of it, and then your subsequent criticism of my review, let me say this:

    Both you and Matt H. have claimed that my review is lacking because you think I’ve based it strictly on whether or not I liked Webb’s song. Chocolate vs. Chocolate Mint.

    But that’s not true at all. I evaluated the song based upon both content and delivery. In regard to content, I compared Derek’s song to others in the same genre. From purely a perspective regarding the writing, I pointed out what I felt was sub-par poetic expression.

    In regard to delivery, I compared the song (and the greater album) to Derek’s previous works–some of which I like very much. And in relation to those works, I felt that his delivery was off, lacking and at times half-hearted.

    So while we’d all agree that there is some level of subjectivity in reviewing any artform, can you see that I tried to be as objective as possible by using other works as reference points? I certainly approached this with more than the old American Bandstand ratings of “Well, it has a good beat, and I can dance to it.”

    You state, “while there is something to be said for an audience enjoying the art, there is also much to be said about an artist making the art he feels compelled to whether everyone enjoys it or not.”

    There is certainly some truth to that, but if an artist’s work is evaluated solely on whether he is true to himself or not, do have any idea how postmodern of an idea that is? I want to repeat the same quotes from C. S. Lewis that I quoted above, and I want you to read them carefully:

    In the highest aesthetic circles one now hears nothing about the artist’s duty to us. It is all about our duty to him. He owes us nothing; we owe him “recognition,” even though he has never paid the slightest attention to our tastes, interests or habits. If we don’t give it to him, our name is mud. In this shop, the customer is always wrong (p. 79).

    Many modern novels, poems, and pictures which we are browbeaten into “appreciating,” are not good work because they do not work at all. They are mere puddles of spilled sensibility or reflection. When an artist is in the strict sense of working, he of course takes into account taste, interests, and capacity of the audience. These, no less than the language, the marble, or the paint, are part of his raw material; to be used, tamed, sublimated, not ignored or defied. Haughty indifference to them is not genius nor integrity; it is laziness and incompetence.

    The artist does indeed owe something to the audience because without the audience—contrary to postmodern sentiment—the artist ceases to be an artist.

    NOW…that’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with an artist creating a project that is very personal and very much driven by his or her own tastes and sentiments. I gave the example of Elvis Costello, who has released albums in almost every genre imaginable because he is extremely gifted and he wanted to stretch himself musically and do a few projects simply for himself. The reality is that many of these did not have wide appeal. They were not the kind of projects that his core audience wanted. In comparison to earlier works, they were often criticized heavily. Does that make them wrong? No. But Costello shouldn’t be upset if his personal project doesn’t appeal to his wider fanbase.

    And the same applies to Derek Webb. If this is supposedly his most personal album yet, then so be it. But don’t be surprised if it gains criticism in comparison with his other works—I mean, in the end, what else is the best way to evaluate an artist’s later works except in relation to his earlier ones?

    I think I ticked off you and Matt H. because you really like the album and I said some negative (but not personal to Webb) statements about it. I’m sorry that everyone doesn’t like what you like. Chocolate vs. Chocolate Mint. But at least I tried to offer some objective reasons why I was critical of it.

    When all is said and done my major criticism of Webb’s newest project is not because it’s personal, and it’s not because it’s a reflection of his own identity as an artist. My main criticism is that his delivery is simply not believable in some, but not all of the works, including especially “Can’t Be Without You.” There are some very serious themes on this album, but in my evaluation, they were not all communicated with the same conviction.

    If you don’t agree, I can live with that. But can you?

  10. dave says:

    yup, fine by me.

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