John Mark McMillan – Borderland

By Josh Hamm on March-3-2014 | Filed under Reviews | Tags : , , , , | Share

John Mark McMillan – Borderland
Score: 5/5Score: 5/5Score: 5/5Score: 5/5Score: 5/55
4.9 (10 votes)

Artist: John Mark McMillan
Title: Borderland
Label: Lionhawk Records (Independent)
Release Date: 03/04/2014
Reviewer: Josh Hamm
Tracklisting:

  1. Holy Ghost
  2. Love At The End
  3. Guns/Napoleon
  4. Future/Past
  5. Borderland
  6. Counting On
  7. Monsters Talk
  8. Tongues Of Fire
  9. Silver Shore
  10. Heart Runs
  11. Visceral

One faith is bondage. Two
are free. In the trust
of old love, cultivation shows
a dark graceful wilderness
at its heart. Wild
in that wilderness, we roam
the distances of our faith,
safe beyond the bounds
of what we know. O love,
open. Show me
my country. Take me home.

              “A Homecoming,” Wendell Berry

For whatever reason, I’ve never been as enamoured with John Mark McMillan as I feel I should be.  His music never connected with me, and I preferred the covers of his songs by other artists. So I was tentative about this album, hoping it wouldn’t be another collection of songs that everyone loves except me.  It’s not.

Borderland flits between the in-between places of reality. It’s a concept particularly present in Celtic mythology, where other worlds and realms lurk behind every door, at the edge of every river. Except that, of course, McMillan’s view of this in-between is rooted in the Christian faith. In that way, it describes the tight rope balancing act of living in the two realms of outlined by St. Augustine: the City of Man and the City of God.  How does one be in the world but not of it?

But it’s also more than that. The album also represents McMillan himself, walking the line between CCM and independent music. This is his first independent release, and it’s telling that it is also his best. It’s not that he’s abandoned his roots, but rather he’s watered them and let them grow into something more beautiful than they were.

Musically, this is more vibrant and innovative than I’ve ever heard McMillan, and it’s a testament to him and his team that they created the sound effects with all organic sounds – no sampling or programming here. It resonates with me like Beautiful Eulogy in that way, it’s a fresh sound in a genre oversaturated with poor attempts to sound fresh. The guitars are laden with pedal effects and the vocals soar high and low as necessary.  The percussion is original and drives each song forward, with various horns and non traditional instruments supplementing the backdrop to create a unique soundscape.

McMillan’s lyrics come together like a tapestry woven with scripture and his own experiences. The opening verse of “Holy Ghost”  is like a cry in the desert, wondering if we are “Mercenaries or lovers / On this side of the thunder / It can be awful hard to know.” It’s hard to point out highlights when the album works this well as a whole, but I feel that each song ups the ante, pushing the album further up and further in thematically and musically. “Future/Past,” rightly chosen as the single for the album, is a somewhat straightforward worship song, but even here, it’s clothed in poetry, opening with “You hold the reigns on the sun and the moon / Like horses driven by kings.” McMillan plucks the imagery of a mythological Epic and stitches it onto a deeply personal act of worship.

The titular “Borderland” is a high point, with an up tempo, energetic enthusiasm about it, without being frantic or convoluted. It also carries some potent truths, like the issue of beating scripture into swords rather than ploughshares by carrying “Bibles bent like shivs.” The last lyric mentally echoes the instrumental ending of the song: “You can’t hold on to love…/ you can’t hold on and live/ by the Law.” And I adore the opening of “Monsters Talk,” with its reverberating guitar, staccato piano, and handclaps to give it an organic feel.  And while this is a particularly strong song poetically, I fell most in love with the saxophone present throughout; it’s simply beautiful.

“Tongues of Fire” brings a slight Bon Iver vibe to the table, as well as beautiful imagery about the Holy Spirit coming to find us. He’s already used military metaphor to describe the Spirit with “Guns/Napoleon,” and here he mixes his metaphors with both fire and water. “River waters moved inside / Our bodies like the ocean tide / The spirit swam the hallows of our veins / The years they roared like waves down on,” and then like tongues of fire which will “smoke you out” of the woods you’ve hidden yourself in.

It’s easy to get caught up in the orchestration, in the swelling surge of a wave of music and poetry cascading over you, and just let a sublime sense of awe overwhelm your senses. But this is an album to reflect upon, time and time again. Listen closely, with both ears and mind, and keep the words close to your heart. McMillan may be baring his own soul, but his questions and conclusions carry weight for all of us.

Overall: Richly resonant and powerfully vibrant, John Mark McMillan has taken his music to another level with Borderland. At once experimental and familiar, it’s the perfect blend of style and substance. Listening to it feels like I’m caught between worlds, weighed down the reality of self, and yet inexplicably drawn up towards heaven’s silver shores.

RIYL: Future of Forestry, Gungor, Josh Garrels, Kye Kye, Bruce Springsteen, Bon Iver

 

You can stream the album at Relevant, and buy it on iTunes.

 

John Mark McMillan - Borderland, 4.9 out of 5 based on 10 ratings

Click here to list all the current reviews by Josh Hamm

About the author Josh Hamm

Josh is a writer from Vancouver, and when he’s not listening to music you can find him with a book in hand, watching a movie, or putting pen to paper. He tries to find God’s joy in everything around him. Sometimes he can, and sometimes he’s just not looking hard enough. View all posts by Josh Hamm

24 Responses to 'John Mark McMillan – Borderland'

  1. great review. to be honest, i have never really listened to john mark mcmillan’s songs before- except for ‘how he loves’. from reading this review i think i ought to get on this bandwagon sooner rather than later. if this album is as good as this review says it is, i’m sure i’m going to love it, just as much as jason gray’s new album (which is my favourite album of the year so far).

    Reply

    • Lucas says:

      Jonathan, you need to check out his album “The Medicine”. I think you’d love it. It’s incredible!

    • cool. i’ll probably check out that album before ‘borderland’. any other artist that you’d want to recommend to me? :) ha ha

    • Lucas says:

      Probably none that you haven’t heard. :) All of Andrew

    • Lucas says:

      Whoops! Finger attacked the enter key. :) Hahaha! Probably none that you haven’t heard. :) I think all of Andrew Peterson’s albums are phenomenal if there are any you haven’t listened to yet.

    • well i think the only one i’ve fully listened to from start to finish is ‘Light for the Lost Boy’. I have a few on my iTunes library so I guess I’d better start listening to him then…

    • Lucas says:

      Lost Boy is my favorite of his but I think Counting Stars, Behold the Lamb of God, The Far Country, and Love & Thunder are all wonderful. His music is so good and his lyrics are incredibly rich! He’s been my go to guy for spiritual encouragement along with My Epic and Beautiful Eulogy. I just love his stuff. :)

  2. Lucas says:

    This album is so good. Maybe the best I’ve heard so far this year, but I need to keep listening. John Mark McMillian is one of those artists whose music always grows on me. His music doesn’t typically blow me away right off the bat but within a couple months the brilliance of it all hits me. I already have a feeling this will be my favorite of his when all is said and done.

    Reply

  3. Mark K says:

    I’m with Lucas. JMM’s material, the music and especially the lyrics, take time to sink in. There’s more to it than the average album. A different kind of artist.

    Reply

  4. platypusguy says:

    “Musically, this is more vibrant and innovative than I’ve ever heard McMillan, and it’s a testament to him and his team that they created the sound effects with all organic sounds – no sampling or programming here”

    I don’t know that this is true. There’s some synthwork happening in a few tunes. Counting On and Monsters Talk and maybe a few other have some gentle, sort of retro feeling synth lines running through most of the song. Future / Past also has some pretty prominent synths at the beginning.

    I’m getting some major hints of Bon Iver influence in here. JMM’s falsetto is absolutely on point through these tunes and there’s a very healthy dose of sax in the album.

    Every tune on this album is enjoyable to me, and I really have nothing bad to say about it. This would probably be a 4/5 in my book at least

    Reply

    • Josh Hamm says:

      For what it’s worth, on the sampling/programming bit, I’m going off of an interview with JMM:
      http://www.obu.edu/campusministries/interview-with-jmm/

      “There’s no programming or samples really, but we crafted sounds from mostly real instruments and spent long periods of time building sound designs with musicians who actually played organic instruments. We did things to create unique sounds without digital effects, like pump vocals into a 50-foot water tower to create reverb.”

      Glad you enjoyed the album, I really believe that this is a milestone for JMM.

    • platypusguy says:

      Wow, that’s pretty neat Josh. I had no clue. A lot of stuff sounds really digital to me, but I could believe that it’s not, which is pretty mindblowing

  5. Tim says:

    I think musically this is his best album yet. It’s also closer to hitting the emotional levels of the lyrics contained within the walls of The Song Inside The Sound of Breaking Down. His lyrics on Borderland are fantastic – imaginative and never formulaic. Just like the music. I’ve written a few more thoughts here: http://wp.me/p3Pxip-6J

    Reply

  6. Anthony says:

    You know, I always he was some sort of generic sounding praise & worship singer because of him being the writer of “How He Loves”, but some of his music is pretty neat. Reminds me a lot of Bon Iver in some ways, who I am a huge fan of. I might have to check this album out. Definitely more on the Gungor side of worship music than Hillsong, which makes me happy.

    Reply

  7. Bob says:

    In the song Future/Past I hear some Arcade Fire for some reason. Loving this album!

    Reply

  8. Sivart says:

    Great album that suffers from over compression. The mix on this is way too loud. :(

    Reply

  9. JoshIVM says:

    I still haven’t had a chance to check this out. I need to fix that.

    Reply

  10. ruth says:

    hey this might seem like a stupid question,but in holyghost by john mark mcmillan he says If the wind doesn’t sing her song.Is he refering to the holyghost as a she or just the wind,because that doesn’t seem biblically correct. I Just wanted to understand the lyrics from another person point of view.
    thanks

    Reply

    • colegerald says:

      I believe the “she” in that line is referring to the wind.

      however, Pneuma, the Greek word translated as “holy spirit” or “holy ghost” in the new testament is grammatically neutral, so it doesn’t have a gender assigned to it. Parakletos, translated as “councilor,” is masculine, but is used far less. and in the old testament, the Hebrew word Ruach is used to convey God’s Spirit or presence, and is feminine.

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