Masterful Tensions | Posted March 21, 2014 Staff Reviewer
John Mark McMillan established his indelible mark on the contemporary church worldwide as the original writer of "How He Loves," a song David Crowder*Band popularized and made one of the most influential and widely-known worship songs of the past decade.
That same raw, earnest, poetic songwriting (also characterizing setlist staples "Skeleton Bones" and "Death in His Grave") reaches breathtaking new levels of intensity on his latest release, Borderland.
Singles "Love At the End" and "Future/Past" were received with deep enthusiasm long before the full album's release. "Love At the End" is a beautiful folk-vibing declaration of the complete lack of ultimate power death and despair have on the hearts of the redeemed. "Future/Past" is unashamed worship of our eternal God, offering deeply rich imagery to express adoration.
The album's title is explained in the dark title track and the melodically stripped-back "Monsters Talk." Both express the human tendency to linger on the fringes in the dark, even when the light is in sight. This tension of the heart's darkness meeting its deep desire for God carries the album thematically. This tension is also expressed in sonic tensions between deep, moody percussion and airy choral vocals.
McMillan truly seems to have achieved a rare and precarious balance in multiple areas, including weighing musical originality and experimentation against rock-solid theological grounding. Opening track "Holy Ghost" is a good example of this, the chorus proving instantly accessible while also referencing some of the oldest doctrinal concepts and images tied to the Spirit: "dead in the water like lamb to the slaughter if the wind doesn't sing her song / I'm speaking in tongues ‘cause I need a Holy Ghost."
Similarly, "Silver Shore" draws on the Old Testament story of Daniel, "Monsters Talk" heavily employs Romans 7, and "Heart Runs" references Jonah and Psalm 47. Although pleasing to the ear, this is not an album that sings intellect to sleep. The truths presented are engaging enough to satisfy a truth-craving emerging generation while finding their footing in centuries of Church tradition and thought.
These songs could easily find their way into the modern-day liturgy of the contemporary church. "Future/Past" is an obvious pick for that kind of usage, but "Heart Runs" could be equally (if not more) powerful in the corporate setting. This track explores the longing characterizing the Christ-follower's life with strikingly earnest and beautiful words recognizing our Lord as our Everything. This leads nicely into album closer "Visceral," which describes the tumultuous, often violent struggles that birth us into the Kingdom of Heaven.
John Mark McMillan's latest is an exquisite blend of indie and church music sensibilities, vibing with folk trends one moment and reverent choral traditions the next without ever feeling like it leans too heavily on convention. This is some of the strongest songwriting heard on a worship-oriented project in the last decade, always prayerful in posture but consistently, viscerally honest. Every single sentence of each song is worth being marked and mulled over on repeat listens. A David-like wrestling with human flaws and divine grace mark this album with a kind of living poetry rarely found in contemporary songwriting.
For indie fans who have despaired of finding a project with a beating heart at its core instead of cold intellectual cynicism and for worship fans who have been craving something a little different musically: this album is for you, and it's not to be missed.
Song to Download Now:
"Future/Past" (Get it on iTunes here.)