“Who are we sometimes I wonder, mercenaries or lovers,” John Mark McMillan asks at the outset of his latest album Borderland. Singing with the weight of bankrupt promises and failing friendships; the heaviness of lonely miles and grinding doubt—McMillan’s voice hangs against the backdrop of spare keys and fragile strings. The drums come in and the mood subtly shifts—a slight lifting—and then the song comes to a close. And the listener is left with the distinct impression that this album may be something special, something rare.
John Mark McMillan is something of an anomaly. From the very beginning of his career, nearly a decade ago, his music has defied easy categorization. A singer-songwriter as interested in musical exploration as lyrical exploration, McMillan carved his own path from the outset—with an ear for melody with a poet’s eye for metaphor—no topic was off-limits: death and love; isolation and exultation; restlessness and silence. And always consistent—an ongoing dialogue with God, ever-wrestling for some kind of blessing and usually at volumes most suited for rock clubs. Now, ten long years in, McMillan is set to release Borderland, his fourth studio album and arguably his finest.
To create the genre-bending Borderland, McMillan returned to the studio in rural North Carolina where he created much of his first two albums. He and producer Elijah Mosely spent a year out in the woods, an hour outside McMillanʼs native Charlotte, patiently and intensely crafting an album that would do justice to the songs that McMillan brought to the table. Dispensing with much of the folk and the rock nʼ roll that informed his earlier work, McMillan opened up his palette to include deep grooves and arena-filling sounds. Drawing inspiration from the likes of Peter Gabriel, Simple Minds and 80’s era- Springsteen, McMillan and Mosley stripped the songs to their bare essence, building them back from the foundation one element at a time. As a result, every song exudes a kind of primal soul and raw swagger only matched by the studied strength of McMillan’s voice.
As for the songwriting, Borderland borders on the literary. Full of metaphors that twist around themselves and images and adjectives that are at once both literal and figurative, McMillan bends words to his own devices. Religious imagery is pressed into service to describe the mundane while the mundane is often elevated to the ecstatic. And like the Psalmists that McMillan reveres, the hardest questions are never avoided, but hit head on. “This album is about life between the crevices, about life on the verge,” songwriter McMillan slowly explains. “The literal concept of borderland is that itʼs that space in between spaces...we all walk these lines between work and family, passion and responsibility, art and commerce. We all feel these pressures—and itʼs where Iʼve been living as a person, as an artist and as a believer. I think Borderland speaks to my experience living in that thin space.”
McMillan’s album is indeed something rare—the sound of an artist staking a claim in the no-man’s land of contemporary life, intent on finding heaven there. Make no mistake, Borderland is the musical statement of a songwriter at the height of his powers; one who has made a career of rejecting easy categorization and defying expectations, and this album is certainly no different.