John Mark McMillan’s “The Medicine”

“I believe it is one of the most important recordings I have had the privilege to hear in my lifetime thus far. It is the stuff of revolution, revelation.” -HE

Holly Etchison

out of 10

The Medicine
July 6, 2010

It was 2002. I was at a Christian conference. At the end of one evening, someone announced that a guy named John Mark was coming onstage. An unassuming looking guy sort of stood in the corner tuning his guitar. Suddenly sounds I had not heard from that stage or on any in such a venue began to emanate thruout the room; I began to think of the early 80s LA punk scene. As John Mark began to sing “Hey won’t you come around”, a raw song casually asking God to show up, it was as if lines of electricity were coursing thru the place. Everyone began singing together: young people, older people, ladies with bedazzled shirts and coiffed hairdos, kids wearing ripped up jeans and hoodies. It seemed God had not just stopped by, he had busted the door down, and he was there for everyone.

The year 2010 finds John Mark McMillan three albums down the road on his musical journey and it seems that his most recent music, like the wine at the Cana wedding, is the best saved for the last. With the re-release of 2008’s The Medicine on Integrity records, John Mark and his band (comprised of James Duke on guitar, Lee Worley on drums, Shae Wooten and Jon Duke on bass) are on the map as never before. The album includes four bonus tracks, including a new studio version of “How he loves,” an anthemic worship song that has become somewhat synonymous with the artist himself and is being sung in churches nationwide and rerecorded by several prominent artists. Another new song “My Only,” rerecorded off of a previous record, is reason enough to purchase The Medicine, or purchase it again. Transcendent, fluid, lifting- the strings and vocals carry you away from worries to a higher place. “Carolina Tide” is another keeper. At moments I was glad Springsteen wrote “I’m on Fire,” at others I was comforted to hear “the shore don’t care who you were before . . . you know we’re not the same.”

But what of the original tracks? The album’s opener “Reckoning Day” serves as a proclamation for what’s ahead with its Ohio-esque death march guitar and drumbeat. Quizzical lines begin filling the airwaves, stuff about lions, guns in the sand, and the admonition to come alive. A longer listen and you observe songwriting at its best. Images like “the hour taking you apart” and “the property lines of your heart drawn in the clay” evoke scriptural notions to know where you stand, that it should be not of this earth, that your heart should belong somewhere else. A crescendo of sounds and words wakes you from a slumber you had not knowingly entered:

Lift up your head
Oh you gate
Lift up your eyes
All you who wait
Daughter and son
Ashes and dust
Come untied from the weight of the age.

“Skeleton bones,“ rousing and rolling, brings to mind Ezekiel and his army of dry bones, and revisits this concept of gates- that we are somehow a kind of gate through which resplendent glory may enter and be released again, and that in this act we adore and crown him as lord of all. Represented resplendently by the guitar playing of James Duke, one begins to realize that in all this talk of blood, bones, ashes, dust and death, John Mark is presenting a gospel that’s very much alive and is beckoning us from graveyards of pews, coffee shops, bars, modern buildings with mirrored windows in which we have comfortably dwelt, sinewless.

The poetically rich “Death in his grave” continues this trend, laying the message of the cross bare. As in many of the songs, a beautifully sung bridge arrives seemingly out of nowhere, serving to connect the heart of its listeners to the concepts:

He has cheated
Hell and seated
Us above the fall
In desperate places
He paid our wages
One time once and for all.

There are lighter moments, like the title track, “The Medicine,” a jaunty bar band rocker, and the Paul Westerbergish “Belly of the Lion,” which seems to pop up out of nowhere. The action in these moments gets a little distracted for me, though the songs in and of themselves are solid and in keeping thematically with the album. The singer seems to be sharing his burden: “I’m wide awake, and there’s blood on the promenade.”

Things seem to grow more personal on songs like the plaintive “Carbon Ribs” and the narrative “Philadelphia.” In “Carbon Ribs,” the singer admits the weariness in connecting heart to head, that even in knowing spiritual truths, the realities of life here reveal our crippled weaknesses. The author recognizes himself a mere shell; now residing is a ghost that’s holy, that will one day be free to go to the place it desires above any other, a haunting refrain repeats almost in a loving whisper: “And I sit beside you.”

Reminiscent in theme of one of my favorite Springsteen songs, “Bobby Jean,” and in sound to one of his best albums, “Nebraska,” the track entitled, “Philadelphia” is the story of a friend who’s grown unreachable. The title connection to the city of brotherly love is unmistakable; that it could also hearken to the church in Revelation 3:7 that Jesus admonishes to “hold fast what you have, so that no one may rob you and deprive you of your crown” is pure conjecture on my part. Regardless, the pain is palpable at the end, as the singer yells, “you’re never gonna run away from what you’re hanging around your head.”

“Out of the Ground” is truly a stand-out moment, almost deserving to be put in a category all its own. The senses are resurrected with the best of the new wave rockers: James’s fingers fly with agility over chords that are otherworldy, the drums pound into your very core. John Mark proclaims “One by one, come undone, come alive, COME ALIVE!.” We can shake off the dust; we are given flight, at least for the song’s duration. And then, with the steady, folkish “Ten Thousand,” we’re alone again with John Mark and his guitar. We can sing gently like a bride who knows her worth “world I’ve overcome you by my song and the blood of a son . . . breathing like a choir of holes in the ground.”

In the end, while mostly a seamless collection of great tunes, the Medicine also serves as a vibrant message to a weary people: it confirms what I began to think in 2002–there is more here than meets the eye. It is something of a reminder: God uses what some might deem foolish- young guys who may feel like social misfits, who think “Born to Run” is probably the best album ever made, who find themselves standing on a stage in a smoky nightclub, yelling, virtually, “Prepare ye the way”; a man dying on a cross to announce victory over death to the world. The Medicine is essential music for a time of nonessentials. I believe it is one of the most important recordings I have had the privilege to hear in my lifetime thus far. It is the stuff of revolution, revelation. Sung aloud, a fire brand is placed to our lips and we may cry like the prophet of old: “Here am I, send me.”

–Holly Etchison, July 5, 2010