As the history of modern music unfolds, certain albums are obvious landmarks. Those are the times when vision meets talent in a divine appointment that produces a collection of songs that help define an artist’s career, such as White Heart!s “Freedom,” Amy Grant’s “Lead Me On,” dcTalk’s “Jesus Freak,” Michael W. Smith!s “Eye 2 Eye,” and U2’s “The Joshua Tree,” among others. MercyMe’s new INO Records release, “Coming Up to Breathe,” is one of those albums.

“INO was really supportive about us making the kind of record we’ve always wanted to make,” says MercyMe frontman/lyricist Bart Millard. “Our last three records are nothing to complain about because they’ve always done really well for us, but I’ve always said in every interview, they are a step in the right direction and getting closer to who I’ve always wanted us to be. When we were talking about making this record, I said ‘I don’t want it to be just a step in the right direction, I want it to be exactly who we are and the kind of music we play.'”

The result is a powerful collection of songs that in some places rocks harder than MercyMe ever has during their dozen years together. “We just wanted to make the album we love and it definitely came across a little more rocking than any other music we’ve ever done,” says Millard, adding enthusiastically, “We love it. We really focused on up tempo songs. It’s definitely way more energetic than anything we’ve ever done before. I don’t think we are trying to reinvent the wheel, it’s just trying toput a little more edge into what we are creating.”

The journey toward self-discovery has been a winding, often bumpy road, for Millard and his bandmates. Along the way, it yielded some incredible music, including the poignant anthem “I Can Only Imagine.” The song transcended musical barriers to become a multi-format smash, pushing sales of MercyMe’s INO debut, “Almost There,” beyond double platinum and earning them numerous accolades, including the Gospel Music Association’s Song of the Year. The band has appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Fox & Friends, applauded in Billboard, Entertainment Weekly, USA Today, The New York Times and other prime media outlets, as well as touring extensively and launching a successful organization to aid young people entering the mission field called The Go Foundation.

But along with the mountaintops come the valleys and the band went through a painful time in which several people close to them died in a matter of weeks. “Making the last record was so intense,” says Millard. “We had so much tragedy we had to deal with. It was just a very draining experience, and in the next year or two we were kind of reliving that through the live show and explaining what happened. It was very exhausting.”

That’s why the title “Coming Up to Breathe” holds special significance for Millard and the band. “We just want to take a break and surface and take a gasp of air,” he says. “We just wanted to stop for a second and kind of let our hair down.”

What emerged is a veritable kaleidoscope of sounds and emotions from the exuberant celebration of the title track and the absolutely infectious song of surrender “So Long Self” to the sweeping epic “Hold Fast,” which reminds us all of the strength to be found in God’s presence.

“There is no huge consistent theme,” Millard says of the songs on the new album. “It’s really just everything that was on our hearts at the time. There are some songs that reflect where we’ve been like ‘Hold Fast.’ It’s just talking to people about when you feel like you are going to give up, just hang on because help is on the way. That’s definitely based on what we’ve gone through and how we’ve made it.”

Millard says there was definitely a lighter mood in the making of this album. “We danced half way through making the record because we hadn’t had any major tragedy,” he confesses. “So it was really just a blast to go through something like this and not have something real heavy lingering over our heads. I think that every song definitely has a message within itself and they can minister to people in different ways.” Millard’s muscular, emotion-laded voice has never sounded better than on “Coming Up to Breathe.”

There’s a sense of passion and freedom in his delivery that draws the listener into each song as if he’s singing just for them. That’s the mark of a great communicator, and Millard has honed his skills even more over the past few years. “Coming Up to Breathe” is the third record Millard has released in less than a year. In 2005, he made his solo bow with the critically acclaimed “Hymned,” on which he reinvented some of Christian music’s timeless hymns, making them new for today’s generation. He and his MercyMe cohorts also recorded “The Christmas Sessions,” sure to become a perennial favorite of Christmas celebrations for years to come.

“It’s been a real exhausting year,” says Millard, who worked with veteran producer Brown Bannister (Amy Grant, The Afters, Steven Curtis Chapman) on all three projects. “We said ‘Man, you’ve made three albums with us in one year which proves that we are insane.'” ”

After such an amazing experience working with Brown on the Christmas Sessions, we knew we wanted to work with him even more,” says Millard. “Brown pushed us to make the music we have always dreamed of making.” For the new album, Millard says the songwriting is all MercyMe. “There’s just such a pleasure knowing that when we finished this whole record, it came from MercyMe,” says Millard. “There wasn’t any outside influence. We wrote it. Whether it’s good or bad, it’s completely us.  Brown would keep telling us, ‘You know what? You are going to make your bed. You are going to lie in it, whatever that is. Whatever comes out of you, this will be MercyMe’s record.'” For “Coming Up to Breathe,” Bannister and the MercyMe guys traveled to upstate New York to record at the famed Allaire Studios used by Tim McGraw, Norah Jones and other luminaries. “We wanted to get away,” says Millard. “If we do an album in Nashville, it means half a day spent either on the phone or in an office doing something other than recording. If we do it at home in Dallas, it is hard to be motivated to work because we would rather be at home with our families. So we had this dream of going away for three or four weeks, just turning our cell phones off to just eat, sleep and make music. We knew that’s what we needed to do.”

Allaire fulfilled their artistic hopes. “We were not disappointed,” Millard says. “We just fell in love with the place, escaping everything and getting in that environment. At one point it rained for 11 days straight. It never let up. It was great music-making weather, watching it rain over the mountain. You had no desire to go outside or take a break and you get a lot done. The day it started raining, we literally locked ourselves in and didn’t look back. We worked, worked and worked.”

Millard is pleased with the success of MercyMe’s previous albums, but admits there’s a special satisfaction in this one. “We’ve always joked about wanting to make our Whiteheart ‘Freedom’ or our Amy Grant ‘Lead Me On,’ and time will tell if that is ever the case,” Millard says, “but we just gave it everything we had. There was no holding back on this record.”

The result is a record destined to stand as a milestone in an illustrious career, but what matters most to MercyMe is the impact the music will have on others. “Regardless of what you are going through in life, regardless of what you are consumed with, regardless of what fills up your everyday life,” says Millard, “there are times you have to stop and surface and take a deep breath and remember what’s important.

That’s what this album is for us. It’s addressing everything we’ve gone through and realizing the one common denominator in all this Jesus. That’s what is worth taking a breath for.”

Copyright © 2006 INO Records 2006. Used with permission.

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