Listen to this: Borderland

I’m slow to take to new music — especially new Christian music. I’ve heard the name John Mark McMillan floating around for the last couple of years, but I never bothered to listen. This March, McMillan released Borderland, and I started to see and hear his name even more. After two friends with trusted musical taste both insisted, on the same day, that I give this work a listen, I succumbed and watched this video of Borderland’s first single, “First/Last.”

I instantly liked it. As a worship leader, I’m always on the look out for songs that work corporately (that is, they are singable, memorable, and true), but that approach old concepts in a unique way. “First/Last” accomplished this goal nicely, so I looked up the rest of the album, expecting to hear more similar worship songs.

What I heard instead was a sonically surprising fusion of rock, pop, folk, and gospel, grounded in McMillan’s enjoyably gritty baritone, and lyrics that would more likely appear in a literature class than in Sunday school. All McMillan’s songs passed the musical side of my “corporate worship test” with their instant hummability, but the instrumentation — which starts with contemporary worship’s acoustic-guitar-fronted-rock band, but is deepened by lush strings and successful experiments with 80s synth and electronic elements — would be unlikely in most church worship services. Most unlikely, however, are the beautiful lyrics, that seem to exult in ambiguity, thought-provoking figurative language, and evocative imagery. Take the album’s opening invocation, “Holy Ghost:”

Dead in the water
Like lamb to the slaughter
If the wind doesn’t sing her song
And I’m speaking in tongues
Cause I need a Holy Ghost

It’s not exactly what you’d hear at church on Pentecost Sunday. Even the album’s perfectly singable single, “Future/Past,” broadens the Christian vocabulary for speaking about the mysteries of God with lines like, “The constellations are swimming inside The breadth of your desire,” before launching into the song’s catchy chorus: “You are my first/you are my last/ You are my future and my past…” Here, cliches ordinarily applied to romantic love take on more resonance when sung to a lilting triple meter that, in the chorus’s last line, seems to fluctuate and expand, demonstrating musically the mystery of a powerful, benevolent creator who exists beyond the confines of time.

And getting beyond confines is really what this entire album is about. Borderland is an album about the space between spaces, the “already-but-not-yet” of life lived between the fall and the fullness of restoration, when Christ’s kingdom has come, but is not yet complete. McMillan luxuriates in the tension of this space, the place “on this side of the thunder” (“Holy Ghost”), “on the brink” (“Love at the End”), where we “see the light of heaven’s porch” though we’re stuck “outside [the] chain-link fence” (“Borderlands”). McMillan underscores the tension inherent in his theme by dwelling in musical borderlands — between CCM and Indie-pop; between corporate and individual; between stadium rock and coffeehouse folk; between the strange and the familiar. And while you may never hear more from this album than “Future/Past” in a worship service, Christians and non-Christians alike will enjoy and benefit from spending some time in the musical and spiritual limbo of Borderland. 

(Note: After looking into Borderland, I realized that I already loved John Mark McMillan for penning the worship song “How He Loves.”  See more lyrics here:

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