Music Monday: John Mark McMillan - Mercury & Lightning
Release Date: September 1, 2017
And the wilderlove is hidden within us
And we reckon with it
And we wrestle with it
The wilderlove is hidden within us
And we wrestle with it
We wrestle with it
To me, the most striking thing about John Mark McMillan’s recent release Mercury & Lightning is the constant theme of tension; specifically tension between the sacred and the secular. As I listen to the album as a whole work (as it should be I might add), the pull between the life we’ve grown accustomed to and the life God intends for us are clearly seen for what they are: in opposition but not without hope of redemption and restoration.
Opening title track “Mercury & Lightning” is full-on honesty from McMillan as he admits “I’ve been chasing God/I’ve been chasing mercury and lightning/And I've been pressing hard/I've been coming up short.” As an introduction to the entire album, the concept of “mercury” is anything that we chase after that slips away from us; too fast to catch.
“Wilderlove” is a haunting picture of the struggle between what we believe about ourselves and God: the wrestling we must all endure in order to reconcile the “bigger realities” of life. As a listener, there’s nothing better when lyrics and melodies work hand-in-hand to a satisfying payoff and it’s something McMillan does seamlessly. The tension and build in the verses climaxes to each chorus. And just try getting that melody out of your head; it has such a hooky chorus.
Rich metaphors and sub-themes abound as the album rolls along; diving into topics like materialism and idol-worship (“Gods of American Success”), the surrender of our plans to God’s design (“Enemy, love”), wishing for a life of meaning and purpose (“Unhaunted”) and a hurt and brokenness over the state of humanity (“No Country”). Sonically Mercury & Lightning draws great influence from 80s standards (think David Bowie, The Cars, or The Police) and with reverberating drums, saxophones, and synth orchestral hits, it feels like a step back in time. It’s all strangely modern, yet strangely familiar.
If someone were to listen to one song on this album to get an idea of John Mark McMillan’s songwriting prowess as well as his melodic genius, “Death In Reverse” would be my recommendation. I cannot stop listening to this song. Something about it is so soothing yet so powerful and a song like this does not come across my path everyday. I’m seriously binging on this song (and the instrumental Bon Iver-esque “esrevernihtaed” that follows). It’s a powerful statement of salvation and transformation:
But it turns out
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
“Raging Moon” is a request for the Lord to show Himself beyond any shadow of doubt: “What the mind don't see, the eye doesn't understand/So be my glow in the shadow of the shadowland.” Similarly, “Fumbling Towards The Light” recognizes a greater knowledge of God despite our faults and failed attempts in the process. “Body In Motion” features a back and forth vocal exchange between McMillan and Liz Vice with a cool tempo breakdown separating each section.
Closing track “Nothing Stands Between Us” is the clearest statement of “worship and praise” on the album and if someone were looking for a concluding thought to all the questions and doubts, this last track helps the listener get there. McMillan is known for his worship anthem “How He Loves” and in a way, Nothing Stands Between Us plays upon a similar theme:
Singing, nothing stands between us
Oh, nothing stands between us
But love now
Nothing stands between us
Oh, nothing stands between us but love
In describing the influence behind Mercury & Lightning, McMillan states “Life is riddled with conflict: the tension between chaos and order, the known and the unknown, certainty and doubt. From my point of view, these contentions are built into the human experience. I think we’re ALL chasing something, propelled daily into the unknown as we grapple for some sort of connection to that which is greater than ourselves.”
McMillan acknowledges the “something” he has been chasing after is Christ. In the process of growing in his faith, he has allowed questions and doubts to open himself up to a greater trust. This trust believes God holds all things together whether we completely understand or not. In the tension that is Mercury & Lightning, it is good to know we can rest in a blessed assurance of who we are and Who Christ is…even when we don’t have every answer.
Until the next #musicmonday, God bless!