A Few Words
by David Kern
Carolina indie-rocker John Mark McMillan is a bit of an anomaly. You see, he's a christian musician who creates quality, creative music that is not derivative or repetitive, that boasts well written lyrics that avoid sentimentality yet still are focused on the artist's faith. Perhaps even more strange is the fact that McMillan has a strong following in both clubs and churches throughout North and South Carolina. But that's the reward for quality.
Of course, I don't mean to throw all christian musicians under the bus. For, indeed, there are many good christian musicians creating today; people like Derek Webb, his wife Sandra McCracken and Andrew Peterson - one could even include Over the Rhine, Sufjan Stevens, and The Arcade Fire in this list, though they likely would prefer they not be characterized as part of the christian music scene. But, unfortunately, truth is truth and the truth is that CCM today is far too replete with gregarious sentimentality, formulaic songwriting, and a general lack of direction that is often hidden by high quality production provided by labels banking on the fact that many Christians will listen to whatever their local radio station DJ says is hip in today's churches.
On his new album, The Medicine, John Mark McMillan is able to eschew all that and create a more than worthwhile collection of unique, spiritually minded, indie rock songs that will play well in the vast spaces of a warehouse church as well as in the intimacy of a small, downtown music club.
The Medicine has an epic sound - a grand, impressive, emotional, heart-on-sleeves, rock sound. The kind with aggressive guitars and aggressive vocals. But it's also air-tight, precise, measured rock n' roll, with just the right amount of whiskey soaked folk; McMillan is confident in his vocals and his songs are consistent with his vision. Think Springsteen, Tweedy, or Yorn singing about the troubles and rewards of faith.
But The Medicine stands out because McMillan has the soul of a poet. Like many of the best songwriters, his lyrics are full of metaphors and vivid imagery. In album opener "Reckoning Day", he sings:
Bury all your guns in the sand
cause the temperature's changed
and the blood shot eye of the sun
stains the bones of the slain
And in the ballad "Death in His Grave" McMillan sings - beautifully, I might add:
on Friday a thief
on Sunday a King
Laid down in grief
but awoke with keys
of Hell on that day
the first born of the slain
the Man Jesus Christ
laid death in his grave." In the closer, "Ten Thousand," he sings "For ten thousand graves yawning unlocked and unlatched
now ten thousand holes with rocks on their backs
ten thousand tombs gaping wide singing the praise
of ten thousand bodies unlaced and unlaid
Other notable tracks include the David Crowder-esque, rock-worship number "Skeleton Bones" and the anthemic, "Dress Us Up."
At the core of John Mark McMillan's music is a strong faith in the death-overcoming love of God and in the healing that that love can bring to the weak and the wounded. To listen to the songs on The Medicine is to listen to the songs of the weary lifted up. It is also to listen to one of the very best albums made by a Christian musician this year.
David Kern is editor-in-chief of Into the Hill
A Few words from John Mark about the new album:
"I'm not sure which songs represent me the best. Some days I feel like I might be OK with people considering me a "Christian" artist and others I just wish people would just let be an artist. I'm obviously known for the community oriented worship songs that I've written (and continue to write) but I just don't think the word "Christian" describes music. Either way here are few of my favorites right now. They're from my new album The Medicine.
"Ten Thousand" uses a number as a vehicle to tell a story from the perspective of a kind of old revelator. I incorporated lots of imagery picturing both death (rivers run red) and resurrection (graves yawning). At the time I wrote this, and much of the album, I was somewhat fascinated with the idea of death and resurrection representing two sides of the human experience. In this particular situation it's not, so much, a strictly Biblical presentation of resurrection but a picture of death and resurrection in everyday life. Though I guess that isn't necessarily and unbiblical concept.
The concept of the song "Reckoning Day" is a confrontation between two characters personifying life and death, where we have become the currency. The idea is that Death owes a debt and Life has come to collect. I like this picture of Life taxing Death as ruthlessly as we have been taxed. To come "untied from the weight of the age" is to enter into a day when we are no longer ruled by death. That is to see a day when death no longer has the final say about who we are and how we choose to live our lives. This may not be a very common modern Christian concept but it's pretty comparable to the language of some early church influences.
"Carbon Ribs" is a fairly introspective song about the conflict between self-doubt and faith from the perspective someone who is fully aware of his/her inadequacy but has chosen to stack their chips in favor grace rather than karma.
"Skeleton Bones" is a song I sing in community/worship situations. Mostly because it has a pretty melody and a fairly anthemic chorus. The idea behind this song is the once again the resurrection from the dead. Bones coming together, standing up etc."