MercyMe’s crossover appeal seemed to happen suddenly, with their iconic hit "I Can Only Imagine" striking it big off their major label debut in 2001. But MercyMe weren’t newcomers by any means, having released six projects independently before ever signing with INO Records. In many respects, they had already stood their first test of time before the Billboard charts ever knew who they were.
What no one could have imagined then was that the song would eventually become much more than a hit song or an impressive debut. The lyrics were inspired by the death of singer Bart Millard’s father, a sad ending to a story of tragedy and redemption. That story was captured in Millard’s book of the same name which in turn spawned a surprise hit film starring Dennis Quaid. The long arc of that evolution, from 2001 hit to 2018 film, demonstrates the strong appeal of the song and the heart that Millard showed in writing it.
From heartache to hit song to movie
“I wrote ‘I Can Only Imagine’ after my father passed away with cancer,” he said in an interview with World Vision. “I was 19 when he passed away and wrote it a few years after that when thinking about my dad being in a better place. My dad was really abusive most of my childhood. When I was in high school, he was diagnosed with cancer, and his life turned completely around — he fell completely in love with Jesus to the point that when he passed, he was one of my best friends and one of the godliest people I know.
People always say, ‘This is for Bart’s dad,’ but it doesn’t address my dad at all. It’s about when I see Christ, and that’s because I’d rather be obsessed with that than an empty bedroom or him not being around. It was my way of coping.
“Somewhere along the line, a lady wanted to make a movie about it, and it’s been about a six- or seven-year process. It was really therapeutic to go through that, watching people relive and re-enact these hard moments that I spent a lot of time trying to get away from, but a redemption story is a story worth telling. Now I can watch it as a fan of a pretty good movie.”
But of course, MercyMe is more than one song and one man’s life experience. The band has won numerous Dove Awards and two American Music Awards for Favorite Contemporary Inspirational Artist, and they’ve added 10 more albums — including two Christmas collections — to their lengthy discography. Having gained fans outside the boundaries of Christian music and hitting the mainstream with a film adaptation was more than they could have imagined when the band formed in an Oklahoma Baptist Church in 1994, something Millard touched on when asked by World Vision if he envisioned the success of “If You Could Imagine.”
“Oh yes, we had a 20-year plan, and we’re right on schedule!” he said. “Of course not! It was special to me when we wrote it. If it moves you, that’s what’s most gratifying. You’re still never sure if it connects with people. The night that I wrote it, I was freaking out — it was like you decoded something you’ve been trying to figure out. You get so excited and want people to read it. That’s gratifying. I knew it was incredibly special to me, even more than ‘Even If’ — of all the songs we’ve done, those are the only two that made me feel the way I did when they were written.”
“Even If” is proof that the band hasn’t missed a step in those 20 years. The first single from their 2018 album Lifer, the song was the 12th MercyMe song to reach the top of the Christian music charts and reached number 10 on Billboard’s Top 200 list, further evidence that they’re continuing to reel in fans from across the music spectrum.
‘Diverse pop album’
Much of that evidence has to do with their use of contemporary hooks and pop sensibilities, according to a review in CCM Magazine.
“The pop hooks have been there from the start,” wrote Matt Conner. “These pop flavors have not. Ever since MercyMe first hit the radio waves, the Grammy-nominated band has been associated with penning strong, hooky content. Their latest album, Lifer, is steeped in current Top 40 sounds, meaning it seems like the band’s been cranking up Bruno Mars, Maroon 5, and Fitz And The Tantrums in recent months. From a title track that mirrors ‘Moves Like Jagger’ to the piano groove of ‘Grace Got You’ to the gospel-funk of ‘Happy Dance,’ Lifer is a diverse pop album finely tuned to modern favorites with some more traditional MercyMe-like tracks sprinkled throughout (‘Even If’ and ‘We Win’). Depending on your musical leanings, you’ll either be pleased with the new sonic turns or turned off, but there’s enough here on either side to stay interested and inspired.”
While the band may be able to strike a pop band pose through their music, they remain determined to focus the message on their faith and the mission on their worship.
“It has definitely made us more aware of probably why we should do what we do,” said bassist Nathan Cochran in an interview with The 700 Club. “We have always had a mindset of everything we do glorifying God, but because now it is on a bigger level and we’re right in front of people’s faces all the time, we’re making efforts to make that much more sure that our hearts and our minds are in the right place.”
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