Album Review :
John Mark McMillan - Borderland

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

  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.