Review Summary: Those Feels
Upon seeing a speech given by Dan Barker, established advocate for American atheists, and one of several commentators to be kicked off Fox News for proclaiming that God doesn't exist, the beloved atheist pundit admitted that a couple times a year, he would wait until his wife and child were asleep and drive off. He would drive until he reached an empty field. Being a former pastor, he would reach for one his favorite christian albums, and sing worship to the night sky. Not that he found any significance in it anymore, it's just there’s a certain type of high that only comes from good christian music. It’s about those feels.
Now I don’t want to bore you all with my history with God, let’s just say that he and I were in a committed relationship, and after going through a very painful breakup, remain happily separated. But I totally knew what Baker was talking about, because I, just as strong of an atheist, do the exact same thing.
One of the songs I tend to reach for is written by John Mark McMillan. If you’re at all acclimated with the christian world, you probably know of it. McMillan is known (kind-of) for penning “How He Loves” which is like this generation’s Amazing Grace, sort of. It’s been covered thousands of times, and been sung in a million churches, and everyone thinks The David Crowder band wrote it, because that’s just how christian music works. Of course, it makes sense the christian music industry wouldn't gel well with McMillan. McMillan’s roots have always been contained more within the southern rock tradition than The Newsboys, and his lyrical content has always had a bit more depth, not to mention edge, than the usual christian chart-toppers. His music still suffered the usual shortcomings of christian rock, but there was enough legitimacy and sincerity in it all to make those shortcomings a bit more forgiving.
I never expected him to release an album like Borderlands though.
Look, I’m not trying to sell this record to you because it’s a good fit to Sputnik Music’s demographic. It isn’t. This music isn’t “sensibly-christian”. This isn't As Cities Burn or mewithoutYou. No one is going to comment “yeah, it talks about God, but it isn't preachy about it.” No, this music was written with evangelical churches in mind, there is a ton of blatant Jesus love here. The reason I’m trying to sell you this record is because while being a thoroughly christian record, it is also one of the most creative, invigorating, dynamic albums I've ever heard. It easily stands as the greatest christian album I own, and continues to be among the greatest albums released in 2014.
Case-in-point, track nine, "Silver Shore". After a “Phil Collins-light” start, two minutes in a drum roll kicks in, and a choir explodes to the surface. I’m not talking “dusty catholic boys” choir, I’m talking “African American I’m filled with the Holy Ghost and I’m singing about it” choir. It’s positively thrilling, and it has its roots within the best parts of the christian tradition. I don’t think a single one of you is going to get through it and not be thinking “Damn right, I do belong on Heaven’s silver shore.”
Or take the following track, album centerpiece “Heart Runs”. It begins as a christian worship song done right. Not-too-nauseating verses, a soaring reverent refrain, and then suddenly in the bridge, a horn blasts out of nowhere, and the entire dynamic shifts. Pure religious bliss.
The reason Borderlands is so damn good is because it brings christian music up to the same standards and quality as secular music. It doesn't need to be graded on a curve, there’s no reason to look down on it because it is christian music, and more importantly, it isn't asking you to. The sound is reverent to the eighties, but just as much as it is reverent, it is also innovative. Compositions shift endlessly and inventively, and come together in unexpected ways to create legitimately exciting soundscapes. Title track Borderland, for example, must have three different percussive instruments used in it.
But more than that, almost every song here has those moments. Moments that make people like Dan Barker and I continue to sing worship songs to someone we’re both pretty damn sure doesn't exist. McMillan does have a checking account, so generic worship song “Future/Past” does make the cut, but it’s one of the most well-composed worship songs put out in years. So much so that our poor 15 year old sputnik-readers who are still dragged to church by their parents will likely hear this song every Sunday because the christian world is going to eat this song up. But then there are songs like Monsters Talk, which cycles through four distinct melodies, has no refrain, and ends on an extended 80’s rock instrumental coda. There’s nothing in christian rock quite like it.
Just give this record three listens. That’s all I’m asking. Perhaps my heart is still secretly on fire for Jesus, and I've ranked this christian album far too high. It’s a legitimate possibility. I think it’s more likely though, that within three listens, this album is going to click, and the majority of you will be in that field with me and Dan Barker. Because at the end of the day, music is about getting those feels, and this album, it packs a wallop.