What if kindness really could change the world? For that simple-hearted question to engage today's complex society requires a bit of creativity. So when a duly imaginative group desired to write penetrating new music about loving well, a character was born.
"He's like Buddy the Elf meets Forrest Gump," says MercyMe singer Bart Millard of the fictitious namesake behind his band's sixth studio album, The Generous Mr. Lovewell. "He sees the good in everyone and knows his neighbors enough to know their needs. Mr. Lovewell may not be the next Billy Graham, but he's changing the world each day."
It's true. The fabricated philanthropist has a Twitter following and Facebook friends galore. His advisory board-Millard, guitarists Mike Scheuchzer and Barry Graul, bassist Nathan Cochran, drummer Robby Shaffer, and keyboard player Jim Bryson-equips the red balloon-toting make-believer with airy ideas ("Pay for a stranger's lunch today") that were already being embraced by MercyMe fans before this batch of songs left the studio.
"It's working the way we hoped it would," Bart admits. "People are taking the concept ten miles further down the road, trying to top each other's random acts of generosity toward strangers, and leaving notes behind that say ‘courtesy of Mr. Lovewell.' We want to see this become a movement that's bigger than the record itself."
The Generous Mr. Lovewell is certainly not a project to be easily outdone. MercyMe's unbroken streak of gold and platinum efforts, which began in 2001 with the No. 1 single "I Can Only Imagine," has led the band to a place of greater artistic freedom; whether it's the daring Sgt. Pepper-like approach, a handful of decades-leaping musical turns, or the universal good will theme, everything about this album lands in the pocket.
Plans for the record first took shape last year after MercyMe returned from a poverty-stricken province in the Dominican Republic where the guys met children they sponsor through Compassion International.
"We always heard 'you come back different' from a trip like that, and sure enough, it turned our world upside down," Millard explains. "We came back disgusted with ourselves and what we had considered important in life. It was time to relate this to our audience-the church-and figure out how we might all do something about improving the way we love each other, at home or halfway around the globe."
MercyMe framed out the songs for The Generous Mr. Lovewell during a week's stay at a cheap rental house in Lake Tahoe along the California/Nevada border and then met up with two producers, Brown Bannister and Dan Muckala, for tracking in El Paso, Texas. While Bannister has guided the band on many prior hits, Muckala was a new twist for the band. Combining their talents (by working together on every cut rather than splitting the album) adds further to the all-around game changer. The difference is evident when the opening notes sound surprisingly dance floor ready.
Indeed, "This Life" kicks off with a pulsating keyboard and backbeat that are a far cry from standard MercyMe presets, yet by the time the motivating chorus breaks free (This life was meant to shine) it's easy to imagine this anthem as a new fan favorite.
Next, "The Generous Mr. Lovewell" goes back in time to capture a breezy style that's part Beatles, part Electric Light Orchestra-a fantastical blue sky mix of crisp acoustic guitars, xylophones, swirling melody, and bouncy rhythm to match MercyMe's idea of who this delightful title character in the bowler hat really is:
He wakes up every day the same, believing he's gonna make a change . . . Come on, Mr. Lovewell / We could use a few more just like you who care enough to give this life away.
The message of committing to extravagant selflessness and faithful optimism threads its way through every song. In "Move," Millard says he's gonna move to a different drum no matter what life brings while his band pounds out an absolutely slamming pop arrangement reminiscent of artists from Maroon 5 and Beyonce back to the Bee Gees.
"The words are simple, but the music is one of the hottest things I've ever been part of," says Bart. "And I can say that, because I don't play anything on it."
Just as fun and hopeful are "Crazy Enough" and "Back to You." The former boasts a unique El Paso vibe with a long and winding guitar part and standout bass playing and affirms the Lovewell theme: Call me crazy, but what if we learned to love our brother for nothing in return / Oh how the rules would change. The Jason Mraz-like reggae groove of "Back to You" carries a lyric in wonderment over how God loves us so well.
Of course, it all comes back to worshiping the One whose love is definitive. MercyMe wrote first single "All of Creation" for the church and "You Remain"-Millard's favorite new track-for God alone; its words were finished in the wake of the Haiti earthquake disaster. Two closing songs-the poetic "Won't You Be My Love" written by Thad Cockrell and "This So Called Love," a short coda penned solely by Bart-remind us that reaching out to others is truly the essence of Christianity. The latter declares:
If all that we do is absent of Jesus, then this "so called" love is completely in vain.
"It's one thing to be kind to someone, to be decent," Millard concludes. "But if we really believe we have this hope, then to stop short-to not be the hands and feet of Jesus-seems almost offensive. Our dream is for this album to inspire others to ‘pay it forward' to the cross. It doesn't have to be about major sacrifices. Just let your life become such that people know what you stand for."
In other words, open your eyes to others' needs and be generous with God's blessings.