“People say ‘unforgiveable’ a lot, but we don’t use the word ‘forgivable’ much,” says Bart Millard, lead singer of contemporary Christian music act MercyMe. “With all the craziness going on in the world today, sometimes it feels like that forgiveness and grace is the most insane thing, especially with cancel culture. We are very good at eating our wounded.”
Millard is referring to the song that serves as the fulcrum of MercyMe’s new album, Always Only Jesus, out Friday (Oct. 21). For nearly three decades, the Brickhouse Entertainment-managed MercyMe has grown a back catalog of hits like “I Can Only Imagine,” which was just certified 5x platinum by the RIAA; “Word of God Speak,” and “Even If.”
Their new album strikes the balance between experimental and the style of polished worship music that MercyMe has become known for, as it dives deep into celebratory wonder (“Hands Up,” “Always Only Jesus”), keeping faith amid doubt (“To Not Worship You”) and finding refuge (“Heart Beats for Your Good”).
The band, which has won six Dove Awards, hopes the new music inspires reconciliation within communities that have become fractured through the COVID-19 pandemic, fiery political divides and more over the past few years.
“In our perspective, we’ve seen a lot of division within the body of Christ, a lot of people drawing lines, taking different stances on things,” Millard says. “And, man, if there was ever a time to remind ourselves that there is one thing we have in common and that’s Jesus, [it would be now].”
MercyMe had initially planned to record only a five-song EP; however, that began to shift with the writing of what became their current single, “Then Christ Came.”
“Then Christ Came,” which stands at No. 11 on Billboard’s Christian Airplay chart, was originally slated for their 2021 album inhale (exhale), but the song, penned by Millard and co-writer David Leonard, wasn’t fully finished by the album’s deadline. So they instead included only a snippet of the unfinished demo.
“We couldn’t crack the code on it for some reason,” Millard recalls. “We knew it was a special song, so we decided that for the first time, we were going to pull the song and wait for the next album.”
Millard joined with singer-songwriters Jason Ingram and Phil Wickham to finish the song, which gets an amped-up refurbishing on Always Only Jesus — a technique reminiscent of Rich Mullins’ “Step by Step,” which was a chorus included on the first album of Mullins’ two-volume project, The World as Best as I Remember It, released in 1991. The chorus, written by David “Beaker” Strasser, became a popular worship song. Mullins added verses to it, and included it again on the album’s second volume, under the name “Sometimes by Step.”
“I’m a huge Rich Mullins fan and I love that he did that,” Millard says. “With ‘Then Christ Came,’ our label said, ‘What if we did a demo — since we know it’s going to be the first single, whenever the next record comes out, a kind of foreshadowing?”
As with inhale (exhale), the group recorded Always Only Jesus at Imagine Cabin, their cabin-turned-recording studio just outside of Nashville.
“It’s been a dream of ours forever to have a space like this,” MercyMe guitarist/vocalist Barry Graul says. “We can leave stuff set up however we want and work as much as we want. If inspiration strikes, we can just chase it. It’s great to go to new areas and find new inspiration, but there’s something special about having your own space, too.”
“This is us getting back to the heart of being a band again,” Millard adds.
The group reunited with the same trio of producers that worked on their previous album: Brown Bannister, known for producing a string of contemporary Christian music artists including Amy Grant, Steven Curtis Chapman and Third Day; Tedd T (Delirious, Newsboys, for King & Country) and The Afters’ Jordan Mohilowski (Andrew Ripp, Walker Hayes).
“They are each very different in their approach,” Millard explains. “Jordan is very in-the-box programming, kind of directing us, whereas with Ted, you could accidentally drop your guitar or something and he would be like, ‘Oh, do that again so I can record it.’ And Brown is like the zen master of encouragement in the room. He’s been doing this for so long and really knows how to work with a band, he’s very diplomatic. He’s the king of giving a band space to get it right. It’s been cool to watch each of them bring their own style to the process. Then there are five producers within the band, so you’ve got like eight producers, but it makes everybody better.”
According to Millard, there was another artist who also gave input into the album — CCM icon Grant, who had been instrumental in MercyMe recording and releasing what became their signature hit, ‘I Can Only Imagine.”
“I’ve had a thing for years where I’ll send a new record to Amy before it ever releases, and she’ll take notes and tell me what she loves — or doesn’t love — about it,” Millard says. “She will be brutally honest. For [“Forgivable”], she said, ‘The lyrics are so heavy… The drums kind of get on my nerves, because I’m wanting it to be a ballad.’ When I’m writing lyrics, I tend to save those for the power ballad, but I do love that this is one of the deepest lyrics on the whole album, but it’s also like an upbeat John Mayer song.”
The album closes with a revamped, harmony-rich version of the hymn “Nothing But the Blood.”
“There are some songs that, due to time and scheduling, I’ll do all the background vocals because I’m there, and [his MercyMe bandmates] do it live and they are more than capable,” Millard says. “This is one of those, like [2008’s] ‘Finally Home,’ where there’s no programming, that’s strictly the band. That’s literally us, trying to find the kick drum sound by hitting things on the wall or the couch cushions, creating it right there in the room.”
This week, the band launched their MercyMe Live 2022 tour, and will team with Chris Tomlin for a winter U.S. outing beginning Dec. 1. For all their achievements, including 17 No. 1s on Christian Airplay, the band members say they still have a few career goals left on their wish lists — including some areas where they’ve still never performed.
“There are some overseas places we would love to play,” says MercyMe bassist/keyboardist/vocalist Nathan Cochran. “We’ve done very little international touring; we haven’t done anything in Europe. We’ve played Australia. We did a USO tour, which was amazing. We would love to do that again — though it is a balancing act because either we take all of our families with us, or we would have to be gone from our families for two weeks.”
And atop the bucket list is winning a Grammy — for which they have been nominated six times, but have yet to take home the golden gramophone. “That’s the one. That would be cool,” says Cochran.