John Mark McMillan’s influence on Christian music is undeniable, so it’s surprising that Smile In The Mystery is the first Christmas themed album of his 17-year career. Comprised of recordings from previous years, as well as some new tracks, it is a delightful and thoughtful addition to your holiday collection.
Opening with “Baby Son,” John Mark’s trademark gravelly tones and acoustic/indie sounds come to the fore. Exploring the idea that Christ came to establish a new government without force, the use of horns and light piano combine to contrast the ideas of earthly and heavenly royalty.
Adding a touch of whimsy to the Bob Dylan’s classic, “To Make You Feel My love,” he turns the ballad into a Christmas tune by quickening the tempo and adding sleigh bells to the chorus. It could have been awkward and tacky, but John Mark just turns this track into a party favourite and you’ll find yourself humming along with ease.
The first duet of the album is “Silver and Gold” featuring John Mark’s wife Sarah McMillan, and it’s easy to see why it’s a favorite. Taken from the classic film ‘Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer’ the addition of verses and a chorus makes it a near-lullaby where they dive into the joyful feelings of Christmas. Strings and thoughtful percussion make this a piece of art, and it’s worth listening to simply for the resonance of Sarah’s voice.
Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World,” is the second pop song-turned Christmas tune on Smile In The Mystery. The nuanced instrumentation keeps the soul of the original masterpiece, with a bluesier take to the bass. The inclusion of the song seems obscure until you hear it in light of the entire album, and you realise it is a breath of fresh air in a world where conflict and pain are ever apparent over the holidays.
“Silent Night,” is therefore the perfect follow up track, and a simple guitar, piano and strings backs John Mark’s folky voice as he recounts the story of the Savior’s birth. Joined by Sarah in the second verse, the intersection of their voices is magic. Cutting to “Smile In The Mystery,” and the Christmas carol is taken to a spine-tinging new level. Repetition and a building instrumental create an angelic resonance to the song, and the well-known nativity story becomes personal and shines a light into your soul.
The original “Lights,” carries all the elements of a good folk Christmas tune— banjo, gentle piano, and references to Christmas trees, strings of lights and love. However, he manages to use this to communicate a message of hope and enduring love with transparency rarely seen.
Singing, “There are some things that happened to you, oh what I would give, I wish they weren’t true. But home is here where you are. With me and Christmas and God,” the complexity and heaviness of the season is allowed to dwell beside the happiness and festivities we participate in. Saxophone and a choir finish it fittingly and you feel like you are sitting beside a fire and the Christmas lights are aglow around you.
Closing with an acoustic version of “Joy To the World,” John Mark’s voice is filled with melancholy and longing. Bringing the album full circle, he opens the song with the lyrics, “He rules the world with truth and grace,” reminding us again of the confounding miracle of Christ’s birth where God came as a humble baby boy to establish his reign and rule on earth.
CCM Christmas albums are neither here nor there this time of year, and even the best ones get lost within the slew of December releases. However, Smile In The Mystery is a refreshing take on the genre. Introspective and beautifully produced, its focus on the empire reign of Christ and how he turned the worldly systems of power on its head will cause you to sigh in relief. If Christmas is feeling worn or tired for you, make sure you give Smile In The Mystery a listen. It will do your heart good.