ARTIST: John Mark McMillan
Album release date: March 4, 2014
Saxophone and Theology: Variation on a Theme
I’ve always struggled a bit with liking the saxophone. It makes me think of uncomfortable scenes from movies made twenty years ago: the scenes when your mom would say, “Cover your eyes. How do we fast-forward?” Think backlit poofy hair, cheesy lines, and way too much tenor sax. So bad.
I’ve also long had a struggle with so-called “Christian music” – there, I said it – because of how often it comes off sounding like a collection of formulaic platitudes with no real grit, personality, skin, or depth: basically, the antithesis of incarnation. Another marketing scheme made more egregious by the fact that it tries to come off as altruistic and sincere.
The idea of saxophone and Christian music together makes me think of liturgical dancing, which calls for no other response than that of looking up Stephen Colbert’s “King of Glory” bit.
So it was a watershed moment for me when I listened to “Monsters Talk” from the album Borderlands by John Mark McMillan. It is a theo-centric song which involves the saxophone, and it is undeniably smooth, unique, and tasteful: three adjectives which could be used in reference to the album as a whole.
Raised in Charlotte, NC, the son of a business-rep-turned-pastor, John Mark McMillan gained a foothold in the Christian music scene after he penned the now-ubiquitous song How He Loves (yes, he meant to write “sloppy wet kiss”). While it would be easy to write him off upon learning that fact, it would be a shame to do so, because he’s come a long, long way as an artist and writer since then: “If you asked me to share with you a list of my greatest achievements,” he says, laughingly, in an interview, “That song wouldn’t even be a contender.” His maturation is evident in the number and variety of people who find solace and inspiration in his work, and who have made it a personal investment: Borderland was a Kickstarter funded project, bringing in a whopping $70,000 budget in under 30 days. “Instead of borrowing money from a corporation to fund this next project, we think it would be far more exciting if you guys would be our record label,” McMillan says on the campaign video, going on to express the communal aspect of music, which should never be approached as a means to an end, but rather as something which enriches and supports the experience of intimacy (or worship).
Borderland is significantly set apart from his three previous releases, which were tied to labels and contracts, and therefore allowed for less creative license – though each of them has been lauded, with various nuances, as being “Christian music that doesn’t sound like Christian music.” While his other albums fall into something like “poetic rock n’ roll”, this latest one synthesizes elements of 80’s pop (ala Springsteen) and electric ambiance (ala Coldplay), with lyrics heavy in esoteric imagery and introspection (ala Bon Iver).
The Challenge of Beauty
The 11 track album is extremely dense, with few moments of breathing room. Lush, pulsing strings, rolling drum fills, Dire Straits style synth keyboards, driving guitars, heavy electronic bass and many other textures combine to create a sound that bespeaks of a great deal of thought, crafting, tweaking, and money. The high-octane production, coupled with very serious, visual lyrics, makes for a somewhat exhausting listening experience the first few times its spun; but with time and careful listening, the brilliance and efficacy of McMillan’s musicality becomes evident (and inspiring).
A couple of songs become a bit too enmeshed in technical shellac to be accessible: Guns/Napoleon is extremely ambitious, but ends up sounding like Matt Maher singing a Chris Martin song, as part of the soundtrack to a drama. The title-track, Borderland, is relentlessly rockin’ to the point of plateauing. Even so, they’re still cool songs, nestled amongst a collection of very tightly produced, well-handled songs. Holy Ghost opens the album up with lush strings pulsing forward, getting increasingly bigger, as McMillan asks, “Who are we, sometimes I wonder: mercenaries or lovers?” Love at the End tastes a bit like Springsteen, rolling along in the footsteps of 80s rock with aplomb. Future/Past is the most “worshipful” song of the album: crowd vocals emphasize the “Hillsong in a living room full of best friends and candles” vibe. Somehow, though, the song is not pretentious – huge and anthemic though it becomes – and I found myself desiring to turn off my analytical brain and just pray as I listened to it. Monsters Talk is one of the coolest, sleekest songs I’ve heard this year. Counting On is similarly gorgeous: particularly when sung unplugged, as seen in the video below.
Borderland is a challenging album, but worth the effort. Its obscure beauty – some times cerebral, and at other times visceral – evades the epidermal satisfaction of typical Christian music and demands greater attentiveness, humility, and appreciation.