John Mark McMillan is an artist in the CCM world best known for penning the hit song "How He Loves," released in 2005, which was his way of dealing with the tragic death of a friend in a car accident. If that has been your only exposure to his music, you can be forgiven as he hasn't reached that level of radio success since (which is criminal), but you have missed out on three critically acclaimed albums, titled The Medicine, Economy and Borderland respectively. With Borderland releasing in 2014, he hasn't rushed to follow up that album quickly. In fact, he has stated in interviews that he had difficulty in finishing his newest, titled Mercury & Lightning, due to a crisis of faith that required him to deconstruct his faith and then reconstruct it. So what does that all sound like, and has the three-year wait been worth it for fans eagerly anticipating his next move? Mercury & Lightning answers with a reverberating "yes" in what this reviewer is claiming to be his best work yet.
The greatest difficulty in reviewing this album is deciding which of the countless bright spots to spend time highlighting. It's rare to say with most music of late, but there is not a single song that falls flat here, not a single song that doesn't support the thesis statement or offer layer upon layer of truth and meaning. This statement is laid out right out of the gate in song one (and title track) "Mercury & Lightning" with the opening lines, "I've been chasing God/I've been chasing mercury and lightning/And I've been pressing hard/I've been coming up short/Lately, I've been thinking about/What's gonna happen with you and I/I need a new religion/Or I need a new lie." He wastes no time in identifying a theme of chasing or pursuit, and he clues the listener to the fact that he has been chasing the wrong things and living a life of anxiety because of it. From JMM himself on the idea of Mercury, "In Roman mythology, Mercury is the god of financial gain, commerce, communication, travelers, boundaries, luck, trickery and thieves. If something is hard to catch, understand or lock down, it's known to be 'mercurial' or 'like Mercury.'"
Another song that haunts with repeat listens is "Gods of American Success," which addresses the unfulfilling pursuit of possessions hidden in a happy guitar riff-laden song. He asks the question that should give each of us pause, "Are we running after flickering sparks, oh?/Are we babbling for diamonds in the dark, oh?/The way we chase that mercury." Song "Enemy, love." is about realizing that the very people who bring us great joy, like a wife and kids, can also produce anxiety in us if we don't let go of the impossible task of controlling everything. Track five brings us to a song called "Undaunted." Featuring crisp live sounding drums, JMM pleads toward the object(s) of his affection (God, wife, friends), "Oh, I don't wanna live like this/Something's got to give/I don't want to be unhaunted." "Death in Reverse" is one of the album's biggest highlights and fights for top track overall with a chill vibe that comes to the conclusion that "All the things I do to feel young/They only make me old/But You raise me/Like a baby/Like a fiery Phoenix bird/Oh, and You lift me up/Like Lazarus/You love me like death in reverse." Also, worth noting is song "No Country," which takes its cues from Jesus' statement in Matthew 8:20 where he says, "Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." JMM knows that the life of a disciple of Jesus puts him in the same place, a man without a country. He takes aim at the modern church (himself included), with lines from the chorus stating, "And yeah when the bomb went off/we were dancing in the kitchen with a neon cross/Yeah, baby I'm lost/Never saw it coming, never thought I'd wake up/With no place to call my country." He is calling the church to wake up and not miss all that is literally and figuratively happening all around us. Lastly, album closer "Nothing Stands Between Us" ends with the hopeful realization that, "What for all the miles have You to say?/Were You there beside me this whole way/You always find me/In between the thunder and the lightning/You always find me."
John Mark McMillan has clearly wrestled deeply with many things in his faith, and we find him confidently and honestly laying it all bare before us. In Mercury & Lightning, he has unleashed his magnum opus, and it is a must-hear album of 2017. There really cannot be enough praise heaped on this offering, and it would be shame for it to go unnoticed. If it doesn't grab you after one listen, give it another, wrestle with the layers, allow it to get under your skin; you will not be sorry you did. Please do not miss out on what should be a top album of the year!
- Review date: 9/12/17, written by Josh Balogh of Jesusfreakhideout.com