John Mark McMillan – Borderland
“Running on the edge, reaching the center, exiled and included, with his Borderland, John Mark McMillan, it seems, has arrived.” -TBIHolly Etchison
out of 10
John Mark McMillan
March 4, 2014
Some things defy comparison; they are too singular- they stand alone or above. John Mark McMillan’s fifth album Borderland might just be one of those things. Should one attempt, however, they might say it is like something you didn’t know you were waiting for, but were in dire need of; some kind of golden assistance just above your head, hovering somewhere in the stratosphere. Suddenly, it’s within reach, and it’s a song, or eleven.
For fans and followers of McMillan’s music through the years, the album will represent an interesting turn of events. If we tunneled up and out of raw, electric, heartfelt, but plain spoken edges with him in previous offerings, here we are invited to soar over the remnants with new wave beats and lyrical loveliness. In Borderland, it seems we’re given access to John Mark’s secret garden, one he’s found or has found him. Cultivated arduously, what’s discovered is a place of beauty, mystery, and triumph. Themes throughout speak of identity lost and found, personally and corporately for listeners as a whole; a sort of personal state of the nation, present and future, carried and communicated with a group of outstanding musicians and friends.
The album’s bookend tracks, the alpha and omega, if you will, “Holy Ghost” and “Visceral,” astound with artistry and excellence. The gentle, hushed tones of “Holy Ghost” make you hang your head in humility, recognizing relief from weariness that tries to abide. It is beautiful as a confessional hymn of desperate faith. “Dead in the water, lamb to the slaughter if the wind doesn’t sing our song then I’m speaking in tongues, ’cause I need a holy ghost.” The stringed crescendo pierces the heart.
Alternately, singing “Visceral” you feel like a super hero, leaping over a building in a single bound, or changing lanes without looking while you clap against your steering wheel. The running beat is U2 at their best, Dylan at his most transcendent; the whoas lift you right into the sky. It’s a song you can get underneath and inside and come out shining, and a poignant crescendo for the set as a whole.
“Love at the End” is the first stirring and surprising departure, with almost pop refrains sung against mesmerizing percussion. A boppy sway and finger snap are inevitable in conjunction with victorious verbage: “Tell the reaper, tell the repo man, I’ve got nothing that belongs to him … I’ve got love at the end of the world.”
The hits don’t stop as the nouveau and inspiring “Guns/Napoleon” comes into earshot. A song of invasion by and glad surrender to a force greater than you, and trust in goodness in the midst of relinquishment is implied in the clever wordplay: “I’m landing on my sword, laying down my guns … and I lose my head at dawn in the bloody revolution.”
The heartbeat of Borderland’s expression might ultimately be found on “Future/Past,” a personal declaration of devotion, a hearkening to beginnings and endings, the consummation of our times found in a person. It is stirring and complete as a testimony of faith; a song from a friend to another sung for all the world to hear; a friend that is well known and knows you more and occasionally lets you in on a secret or two so you can tell the others.
“Tongues of Fire” encourages that dreams and vision lost or buried can be revived. The wandering is over it pronounces in a jangly way, “they’re gonna smoke you out, they’re gonna find you out of the woods,” or as Dylan sang once, what’s lost has been found, what’s to come has already been.
The tear inducing “Heart Runs” plays like a psalm of David’s. “From the dirt you draw me out, and you draw me out again, I’m coming back from the dead and coming out of my skin.” Horns are exultant as the choral refrain lifts: “And you are everything my heart wants, my heart runs after you.” Simply stunning, as many others in this playlist, in its delivery.
Running on the edge, reaching the center, exiled and included, with his Borderland, John Mark McMillan, it seems, has arrived. Each song, it could dare to be said, is a standout on its own. For the generations that seek a soundtrack for this life, Borderland is a rare definition, honed and heard by a musician on the cusp, surveying it before and with us and handing it back. These sounds are making waves that crash against then lift you high above, just when you thought you might drown. You’re not only walking on the water, you’re dancing across it to another shore.