One of the most powerful and thoughtful lyricists in Christian music, the big names should be asking him to co-write, for everyone’s benefit.
Label: Lionhawk Records
Time: 11 Tracks / 39 minutes
When launching his record label, John Mark McMillan wrote, “I’m especially interested in artists who have deep spiritual roots, but don’t necessarily fit some of the musical expectations that our current industry model places on them.” Hallelujah for that kind of vision, which puts much-needed intelligence and creativity back into worship, connecting it with everyday life – surely the proper context for worship in its truest sense.
This release lives that vision from the start. In the opening track, called “Jesus Christ” – a title that would have many reaching for abstract clichés – he sings about driving, making babies and walking the dog, as he sets our real lives in the context of eternity.
In a song about God’s empathy with human suffering, he writes poetically,
“You cut the mountains with volcanic rage, stone and ash
You lit the firmament ablaze, you pulled the waters back
You drank the mortal cup to feel the blast of senseless acts
You blotted out the blood of war with blood upon your back.”
He taunts Olympian gods in “The Road, The Rocks and the Weeds” for eschewing the physical path that Jesus trod.
“Well I’ve got no answers
For heartbreaks or cancers,
But a Savior who suffers them with me.
Singing Goodbye, Olympus
The heart of my maker
Is spread out on the roads, the rocks and the weeds.”
He’s thoughtful in a more philosophical sense in “God is Young,” as he posits, “God is young and maybe we’re the ones who grow old.”
But sometimes, does he over-think his words? “Hammering Heart” dramatically conveys the hugeness of God’s heart and the power of its effect, but I wonder whether the images work in places: “Everybody gets crushed by the hammering heart of the Maker.” There are similar apparent contradictions about the effects of God’s love in “Unbroken Horses,” which also deals with our failings. I think I know what he is trying to say, but it could be made clearer, so that it doesn’t detract from feeling the song.
“Cousin John” (about John the Baptist keeping his head) works on two levels, but is very straightforward. It uses black humour and a backing reminiscent of Duke Special’s contemporary vaudeville.
Otherwise, sonically, this album feels like a mash-up of Derek Webb’s electronic experiments and The Brilliance, with touches of Arcade Fire, all backing Chris Rea’s vocals.
His lyrics are consistently poetic, deep and rich; there is so much thought going on that you have to concentrate or you’ll miss a lot. But the production lets this down. Sometimes, as in “Juggernaut” and “Cousin John,” the sound is too middle-heavy, with clattering drums and several ideas clamouring for the same space. Sometimes the tunes do a similar thing, struggling to flow naturally.
But sometimes it all comes together, such as in “Pilgrim” and especially the anthemic “Everything New,” both featuring hooks and fluid melodies that let you feel the wonder of the words.
These are the most intelligent Christian lyrics I’ve come across in ages. Even with its faults, I’d rather have this grower than a dozen of the Redmans, Hughes, Hillsongs and Baloches, who seem banal in comparison. Ideally, we would have McMillan’s words and song concepts, but get others to develop the tunes and polish up the mix.
(My 4-part series charting the rise and fall of Christian Music over 50 years starts here)