In a culture that prides itself upon its immediate accessibility we want songs to grab us from the get-go. And we have absolutely no patience to mediate on songs that neologize upon God's truth via the carefully unpacking of metaphors and word images. As a result, many songs today are shallow and the products of sloth. Even the musical illiterate can count the number of worship songs that plagiarize the same hooks and riffs as well as the same recycled clichés. This is not so with John Mark McMillan's latest project "Borderland." McMillan is a poet laureate who is not afraid to use language to discomfort the comfortable and comfort the discomfort. His use of metaphors and Biblical allusions are nonpareil. But before we say more about the record, it's proper to bring to remembrance some of McMillan's milestones. Many of us have come to know him via his self composed CCLI's Top 25 worship staple "How He Loves Us." Save for Darlene Zschech's "Shout to the Lord," "How He Loves Us" has invited more covers than one can list.
"Borderland" is McMillan's fourth album project and it is also his first independently released effort since his tenure with Integrity Music. "Borderland," by McMillan's own confession, moves away from the live band that has earmarked his previous releases. Rather, imbued with an organic blueprint, there's no sound on this CD that is programmed or sampled. In fact, in an effort to create a reverb sound for the record, McMillan would go as far as to pump his vocals into a 50-feet water tower. And even when it comes to the composition of the songs, McMillan never resorts to recycled hooks or overused clichés. Rather, he is a great song dissector: he would deconstruct essential rhythmic, melodic and emotional components of songs before retooling them together again. Often he would re-construct his songs with such artistic ingenuity and spiritual investments that they would come across as fresh, exciting and times even disturbing (in a good way).
McMillan goes back to his primal soul on the searching string laden ballad "Holy Ghost." His gruff and often mumbled styled nuances bring to mind Bruce Springsteen in his folky "The Ghost of Tom Joad" days. We have to take our hats off to McMillan when it comes to "Love in the End." Here McMillan writes with the poetic eloquence of the Apostle John in the Apocalypse. Pay careful attention to how McMillan resurrects Biblical allusions of Rome and Babylon as a way of enabling us to see how these tyrannies, albeit under new guises, still taunt us today. More moments of surrender to God's Spirit is detailed in "Guns/Napoleon." Here with great ingenuity, McMillan expounds on how the Spirit dethrones the things in our life that deter his reign in a song that is equipped with marching militant drum beats calling to mind those Civil War anthems. "Future/Past" is melodically the best song. Featuring lots of airy internal lapses between notes as if to signal a large space of time this reinforces the song's theme that God has the encompassing reign over all our past as well as our future.
The title cut "Borderland" and "Monsters" are perhaps the most acerbic. On the raw rock swagger "Borderland" McMillan echoes the universal cry that we can never be good without God's grace. "Help me Holy Jesus/Won't you show me how to live/I've got monsters at my table/I've got Bibles bent like shivs." Likewise on "Monsters," McMillan continues on with the theme of our need for grace, this time backed by some interesting interplay of drums and piano. However, if you are looking for another "How He Loves Us" or another congregational styled worship song, you will be disappointed. In fact, sometimes some of the lyrics are far too slouched in ornate metaphors that they tend to shade the songs' meaning. Thus, this is certainly not an album to listen to as background music. Rather, it is a collection that demands time, patience and carefully listening to unpack the songs' meaning.