Sometimes even the critic has to dig deep and eschew personal feelings to get to the heart of their feelings on a matter.
Generally, labels placed on musicians (or other artists for that matter) do not color my impression of their music. However, I will admit that one exception is Contemporary Christian or Worship music. To be perfectly honest, I ignore artists falling within this genre. An open mind allows the listener to clearly determine whether the statement that artist is trying to make is worthy.
Never judging an artist by their personal life, I don't subscribe to the notion that the artist needs to force feed their personal beliefs to their audience. Some Christian artists do this more than others I'm sure. Think about the praise compilations you might see while flipping channels on television. They contain images of a crowd with their hands raised high bathed in colorful lights listening to emotional music filled with praise towards Jesus.
An artist's political ideals and beliefs blur the line of objectivity further between artist and audience, but with the Evangelical Christian movement at a zenith in the past decade that line has become harder than ever for me.
Released in early November, Economy (Integrity/Sony Red), the new album by John Mark McMillan slipped through the radar and resonated well before the realization surfaced that the artist identified with this genre. On first listen, the Charlotte based musician's sparse, emotional music evoked Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town colored with a post-Rock palette. Folk undertones only continued to enhance my identification with the music.
Personally, the initial impressions of an album usually fall squarely on the music and then the lyrics. The music that I typically identify with the most both succeeds in capturing my interest in the musical and lyrical landscape. While McMillan does not shy away coloring his lyrics with references to religion, these themes are not directly shoved in the listener's face.
The first half of the album seems as secular as any normal Rock record released today. The reverb laden guitars on the noir-ish "Sheet of Night" is a powerful anthem perfect for a twenty-something with lines like, "We’ve got a love that’ll brave the flood" and "We overtake the cityscapes/We scale the heights/We break but we don’t die."
The second track "Daylight" carries the most power with a mid-tempo rock groove and 3 minute plus running time. This song would not sound out-of-place by any upcoming New Jersey band living in the shadow of Springsteen. The chorus repeating the lines "We live on the edge/On the edge of a darkness oh/We live on the edge/On the edge of a darkness oh/But daylight is coming on."
Not until the second half of the record do McMillan's religious undertones begin to surface. The song "Who Is This" repeats the line "open up the doors/your everlasting doors" as the lyrics seem to discuss someone who is slipping the bonds of this Earthly realm and passing into the light.
Similarly, the inspiration behind the lyric "By the blood of a son I have overcome the grave" becomes more transparent in the song "Sins Are Stones." On the positive side, McMillan uses poetry and metaphor rather than constantly invoking the name of Jesus to get his message across.
Throughout the album, however, the music stays the course. Deeper in the songs become longer and more emotional. The guitars use more feedback and solos carry on longer as keyboards create layers of color over the basic song structure.
With the expanded knowledge of the artist it will be harder to remove the Christian themed underpinnings of these songs. Nevertheless, these are well constructed emotional statements that deserve to be heard by all, not just those subscribing to a musical sub-genre. Going in with an open mind will allow this music to touch you and allow you to form your own opinion. Maybe you'll see the light. That's a worthy goal for any listener.
John Mark McMillan - Economy track listing:
1. Sheet of Night
3. Heart Bleeds
4. Love You Swore
5. Murdered Son
6. Who Is This
7. Sins Are Stones
10. Seen A Darkness
John Mark McMillan - "Daylight"
John Mark McMillan - "Sheet Of Night"
John Mark McMillan - "Economy"