Album Review: John Mark McMillan – Borderland

by Sam Robinson

North Carolina’s John Mark McMillan has been hard at work on his fourth album for some time now, but the final result – Borderland – is outstanding. Funded by a Kickstarter campaign and released independently on McMillan’s own label, this album will be one that fans both old and new will lap up.

Across eleven tracks, John Mark transports us into what he describes as a borderland, a “place between places”. There’s no doubt that Borderland has crossover potential between secular and Christian audiences, but I feel that John Mark hasn’t shied away from acknowledging God’s sovereignty and rule over this world, and that we are his creatures. Lead single Future / Past declares the mighty works of God, and the fact that Jesus enters into our lowly state of humanity and asks us to be his friends, his people.

Musically, this album is almost faultless. As you listen to Borderland, it’s clear that John Mark McMillan and his band have taken the utmost care throughout the recording process to achieve the best result possible. There’s plenty of 80s throwbacks on this album (Love at the End, Counting On) and the instrumentation used has been taken right from that era to ensure authenticity.

Standout tracks include Guns / Napoleon, which hits you with a surprising groove and jagged guitars and bass in the verses but bursts into a seriously smooth chorus. Title track Borderland moves along like a rollicking Springsteen song, as John Mark cries out for help from God, declaring life in the Borderland is a game of survival. Monsters Talk features handclaps and a saxophone, and reminds us of our frailty without God: ‘We are fragile creatures on collision for judgement day.’

The penultimate track Heart Runs is a heartbreaker of a song. It’s a worshipful track featuring complex rhythms. It acknowledges God is everything that our hearts are to be chasing after. And just when you think the song might be over, John Mark cranks it to a new level with builds and whimsical falsetto.

I recently spoke at length with John Mark about Borderland, and here’s what John Mark said about one of the standout tracks, Love at the End, that almost didn’t make it onto the record:

“It’s one of those funny songs. It’s one of the first songs I started and I wasn’t even going to finish it because it wasn’t coming out. The lyrics weren’t making sense and I wrote it four or five times. But then after a while I decided to write something I wanted to write that I enjoyed the sound of. So there’s a lot of lyrics that don’t make any literal sense, like: ‘My rabbit’s running on the street hot heels of Rome’. Street hot heels just sounds cool, y’know? It’s the aesthetic. I mean there’s definitely the idea of a rabbit representing fear, and Rome representing an empire, but this whole idea of these two sort of things. I tied in these words that were aesthetically pleasing that you could draw meaning from, because there’s definite meaning there. But I feel like my audience likes to have an idea of what I’m saying most of the time, so I fought it. Finally I went with what I enjoyed and it’s funny because people really love that song. I should give people more credit than I do. People are more open to different kinds of songwriting ideas.

“But really – it’s the last song I sang. I thought maybe we could finish it up later and make it a bonus track, but then we thought ‘let’s push it through and put it on the album’, so we did and after we got it mixed and mastered I was like, ‘Man, this is my favourite one!’ I spent a year writing that song, I spent a year writing Guns / Napoleon, some of the [other] songs on the album I spent the whole year writing. It’s funny, at the end of the year they sounded a lot like they did at the beginning, but they changed a lot in the middle [Laughs].”

We also spoke about the production on that song as well as others, why he sings with two SM57s in music videos, making an album independently, and the album’s message. Read the full interview here.

There’s no doubt about it, Borderland is a modern classic. I’m giving it five out of five stars.

Borderland by John Mark McMillan will be released Tuesday 4th March. It will be available digitally on iTunes and physically here.

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