Sometimes the most powerful, truth-laden statements are the most simple and direct. Always Only Jesus. There it is—just three words that ignite the heart of every believer and lay the foundation for unbridled faith. How could those words not inspire a song? Well for MercyMe, they did.
“Always Only Jesus” is the pivotal track that provided the title of the award-winning band’s new album, a 10-song collection filled with the kind of musically inventive, lyrically substantive songs that have always been the bedrock of MercyMe’s decades long career. “inhale (exhale) wasn’t reinventing the wheel, but it was fun for us to go after a collaboration with Gloria Gaynor and do stuff that we wouldn’t normally do,” lead vocalist Bart Millard says of the band’s acclaimed 2021 album. “This one in some ways is like a warm blanket to us—not just how we’re playing—but the subject matter. For me personally, if I ever needed this to be front and center, not just in MercyMe, but in my life, it’s now. I can’t wait to hear people sing these songs and worship. Every song points back to Jesus.”
The album’s lead single, “Then Christ Came,” is already a force on Christian radio for the band, made up of Millard, percussionist Robby Shaffer, bassist Nathan Cochran and guitarists Mike Scheuchzer and Barry Graul.
“The demo is on inhale (exhale),” Millard says of “Then Christ Came.” “Years ago, Rich Mullins did that with ‘Step By Step,’ and the next album he made it a full song. I always loved that. So, we decided to take that approach and committed to it being the first single.”
Millard admits the song went through a transformation between the making of the two albums. “It’s totally different from what it is now. It was really special and sometimes when a song is really special, you handle it with kid gloves,” he says. “You’ll put it aside and do all the other stuff and say, ‘Let’s really focus on this.’ Well, we got to that point and actually I was having a hard time finishing and so I reached out to Phil Wickham. He transformed it.”
“Then Christ Came” spotlights one of the most powerful lyrics in MercyMe’s already impressive arsenal of hits. “It was that concept of the world coming apart and then all of a sudden just the visual of Jesus literally stepping in and changing the whole scene, changing everything,” Millard says. “Literally those three words change not only our lives but all of mankind. Then Christ showed up. I just love that powerful image.”
“Then Christ Came” is just the latest in an impressive streak of radio singles that have not only fueled MercyMe’s 28-year career, but also helped define the landscape of contemporary Christian music. The Grammy nominated band has scored numerous accolades including American Music Awards and Gospel Music Association Dove Awards. They were named Billboard’s Top Christian Artist of the 2000 and 2010 decades. MercyMe’s genre-spanning, 5x platinum hit, “I Can Only Imagine,” written by Millard about his father, became a hit movie in 2018 and further expanded the veteran band’s fan base. Over the course of the group’s career, MercyMe has earned more than 48 No. 1 radio singles and achieved millions of streams.
With their 11th album, Always Only Jesus, MercyMe again delivers songs that will both move the listener to tears and always keep them tapping their toes. Though all songs are Christ-focused, the album still boasts diversity. “‘Hands Up’ is not a corporate worship song,” Millard says of the album’s energetic opener. “That song is about frustration. I get so frustrated I can’t describe him well enough but then thank God I can’t. Would he be God if I could? It’s kind of celebrating the fact that He’s always bigger than us or out of reach as far as describing him.”
Among the album’s many standout moments is “To Not Worship You.” “It was one of the first songs we wrote coming out of the pandemic,” Shaffer says. “I actually think we wrote it before the pandemic, back when we wrote ‘Almost Home.’ That was one of the very first songs that we recorded, and it just kept getting pushed aside, but that’s a complete drum track that was ready to go. I’m glad that will see the light of day finally.”
The song’s buoyant melody and Millard’s impassioned vocal soar. “Everybody was in on that,” Scheuchzer says of the band working with producers Brown Bannister, Tedd T. and Jordan Mohilowski. “When we are working with producers, we like to have their input. Modern producers are songwriters as much as they are producers. We love Brown but he’s more hands off on the writing side. He’s like trying to draw the best out of everybody in the room and a lot of these newer guys are more hands on in everything, so it’s a cool dynamic. It’s challenging to have been in it this long and to see how it used to be and how it is and try to find the best in all of it.”
“Good songwriters always talk about the things that are in their heart. If you’re in love, you talk about it. My son is engaged, and he’s annoying because he talks about it too much,” Millard says with a laugh. “If you love a band or are political or whatever, these things come out. And if you have Christ in you, worship should not be a plan or agenda. It should be that you can’t keep it away. So that was the idea for the song. How can we say this to God, ‘This is how big you are and how amazing you are. Who am I to not do this?’ I just love that concept.”
In recording their latest album, Scheuchzer and his compadres have learned to strike a perfect balance between relying on the tried and true and exploring new methods of creating. One thing that has helped give the band more time and space to fully flesh out each creative vision is the that fact that they now have their own recording studio. The new album is the second to be recorded at Imagine House, a state-of-the-art studio in a rustic cabin situated on 35 beautiful, wooded acres south of Nashville. It’s the same cabin where Gordon Kennedy, Tommy Sims and Wayne Kirkpatrick are rumored to have written Eric Clapton’s Grammy winning hit “Change the World.”
Having their own studio allowed the band to take their time in crafting the album, and they are anxious for fans to hear these songs. Shaffer feels that “Forgivable,” in particular, carries an important message for our times. “‘Forgivable’ is probably my favorite song because of the message,” he says of the breezy, inspiring tune. “People of all ages will relate to that one, especially in the society we are in today where everything gets pounded. People hear, ‘You messed up here. You messed up there. You offended this person. You offended that person. You are cancelled.’ You are not cancelled. The message in the song is the opposite of what we are hearing every day.”
The album closes with a powerful rendition of “Nothing But the Blood.” “My favorite moment is our version of ‘Nothing But The Blood.’ I love some of the melody changes that we made,” Cochran shares. “It’s always been one of my favorite hymns and it’s the only moment on the record that I check out and I’m not thinking about what we did. I’m just listening and singing along.”
Graul agrees that the song is special to him too. “It’s one of the first things I played for my wife,” he smiles. “I love the vocals at the end. I listen to it all the time.”
“Nothing But the Blood” is the perfect emotional note to conclude the album and it was intentional. “The way we end records has always been important to us. We always want to feel something at the end,” adds Scheuchzer. “I had the melody in my head, and we just started singing it one day. We wanted to redo a hymn was the idea. The night we recorded it, it was a moment like ‘Dear Younger Me’ and ‘Finally Home’ that I can remember when we were creating it. It was like, ‘Oh man, this is what keeps us together for 28 years.’”
Over the course of MercyMe’s career, some of their most impactful songs, including “I Can Only Imagine,” came from difficult moments in Millard’s life. This album is different. “I tend to lament well because the songs that really matter the most came out of really painful places and [to write them] it feels like I have to go in this cave and revisit, which I hate,” he admits. “I’m proud of what comes out of it but it’s hard to go into songwriting mode like that.”
However, the shared experience of the pandemic made the process different this time. “It feels like we all went in that same cave,” Millard says. “When do you ever experience what feels like the same thing as a whole, like the pandemic? I didn’t feel like I had to go away and come back and explain this is where we’ve been. We’ve all been there, so as a whole for me personally, I desperately needed an Always Only Jesus record.”
MercyMe has crafted a poignant album that is perfect for this time and for all time. “I feel like that’s what we need right now is an anthem that we can all agree on,” Scheuchzer says. “We may not agree on anything else, but we all agree that it’s Always Only Jesus. That’s why the album feels like anthem after anthem after anthem because they are all definitive statements about Jesus.”