John Mark McMillan’s “Economy”
Holly believes this is an important record and McMillan’s best! Find out why…Holly Etchison
out of 10
John Mark McMillan
November 1, 2011
I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice? Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words. -C.S. Lewis, “Till We Have Faces”
If I had to choose one word to describe the latest John Mark McMillan album, I’d be hard pressed. Unlike John Mark, who succinctly titled his fourth release Economy, I have never been overly skilled with brevity. Many words crowd my mind as the tracks tick by: Jubilant. Unfettered. Triumphant. Catastrophic. Resplendent? But if I had to land on one, it would be, actually, rather succinct: it would be, simply, great. Thematically profound and technically tight, Economy rises from the strong, inspiring foundation McMillan’s previous efforts have built, and stands on its own as an earmark in this artist’s career, as a portent for the music scene at large.
Dylan is quoted as saying that a song is anything that can walk by itself. “Sheet of night“, Economy’s first offering, comes out kicking. Mentions of currency and taxes, dogs and superiors easily reside with themes more spiritual in nature. A familiar darkness unable to douse or comprehend a burning, reflected light fascinates, and the first hint that you’re onto something extraordinary is dropped with a relentless beat and thrilling guitar. By the end you are part of the “we” John Mark references in a gravelly yell:
Like diamonds we shine up against the sheet of night, the jet black sheet of night
We overtake the cityscapes, we scale the heights, we break but we don’t die.
Further showcasing McMillan’s poetic dexterity is “Daylight.” The singer asserts again that a growing darkness anyone who’s ever wanted to give up knows well is yet no match for an undeterred dawn with lines like “Daylight comes to meet you on the road like a prodigal son / A prodigal hope you gave up on when you were young.” The players reassert with howling rhythms, echoing sentiments rich with hopeful theology in a decade beleaguered:
Heaven bends low for the naked and the poor
To settle up a debt, to settle up the score
To set up a table on the edge of war
Cause we’ve been bleeding on the edge of a sword.
The words read like a banner cry for a generation surrounded by broken promises and unmet expectations, those living in a uncertain times.
The boppy, sing-along-able “Heart bleeds” recalls some of the best E Street moments: you can almost imagine Patty and her tambourine, Danny Federici pounding away at the keys. Its lighthearted nature camouflages a heart pinned on its sleeve. It redirects the ‘bleeding heart’ to a source that doesn’t crash or disappoint, where devotion is not amiss.
A turning point is found in the soaring “Love you Swore.” Its dreamlike beginning and heartbeat drum create an upward spiral. The lyrics are cyclical: God as the hunter, we the hunted, hunting too. The hunter is revealed as a rescuer. A chorus of “whoa whoas” finds you eventually face down in surrender as these lines are repeated :
Harbor me in the eye of the storm
I’m holding on to the love you swore.
We are now ready to lay hearts bare with the lilting “Murdered son.” Stripped down, it plays like an old time gospel tune, spreading good news that doesn’t change with time or circumstance. Once through the refrain “Glory to the one, God’s murdered son, who paid for my resurrection” and it is sung like a standard from an old hymnal.
What you are not, can not be, prepared for is the uprising that begins mid album with the title track “Economy.” The heavy guitar (James Duke) is brilliant. As it gets harder, it becomes a shovel, digging mercilessly alongside the lyrics: “I believe you can overcome my heart’s economy, you can dig me out of the grave.” Conjecture becomes conviction: the theme here could be the economy of our souls; that where we have believed ourselves bankrupt, a payment has been made in full.
And then we are taking the kingdom by force with “Who is this?”, the haunting refrain. Like a slow march toward honor, the inspired guitar announces a dread army going where angels fear to tread. Basically, to use a phrase familiar to rock fans, it rips your face off, until you find yourself confronting something glorious.
“Sins are stones” cradles the listener gently again. Begun with the melody of “O Come Let Us Adore Him,” it heralds not the birth of the baby Jesus, but the spilled blood of the son Jesus. The beautifully sung ‘O my soul, praise him’ resounds as a psalm for the 2000s. The backing vocals are lovely.
The stripped down “Chemicals” is a plaintive, knee slapping departure, a homily on the dependence we place in substances guaranteed to alter our existence. It offers up a plea for a different kind of dependence, for a love that satisfies and endures.
Coming to the end, I recall Dylan again. Reminiscent of his otherworldly “Series of Dreams,” “Seen a Darkness” travels speedily to a place beyond the valley of the shadow. It is in itself a miniature gospel:
Born into the grave, but born a second time,
We’ve been born again into love’s hot hands on someone else’s dime.
We arrive on a higher, glistening plain, running forward into a light we have not clearly known. The last quiet piano tones are not just an effective fade but a sweet affectation to the soul.
In a time of more questions than answers, where the answers never seem to satisfy disillusioned hearers, where debate and discord are seen, felt and heard way more than any national anthem, and the mere word economy prompts a fifty comment debate on Facebook, John Mark McMillan is humming a tune from the trenches. His Economy subtly and skillfully asks the real question facing the poverty stricken, the prosperous: it is not what don’t we have, but what do we have? It reminds me of Mark’s quotation of Jesus: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?” (Mark 8:36, 37) It does so with superbly crafted songs. Just great.