Behind the Music
K-LOVE Cover Story: MercyMe Releases New Album Shaped by the Pandemic and a Group of All-Star Collaborators
By Lindsay Williams
From Moses to Job to Jesus, the most intrepid heroes in scripture knew times of trouble that multiplied like a plague-—but always led, in the end, to mighty celebration.
It’s easy to assume such stories of trial and triumph are for the Bible’s books or the history books. But miracles happen, even when adversity hits hardest. Just ask Josh Havens, guitarist and lead vocalist of the Afters. He relates how the band’s latest effort, Live on Forever began during a season of tragedy.
Just as the band regrouped to record, Havens witnessed the wife of a close friend contract cancer. Drummer Jordan Mohilowski (who produced the new album) had a brief health scare, and a close companion in his church—-part of the worship team—-was hit and killed by an impaired driver. She was a young woman, Havens says, who had unlimited potential.
But Live on Forever still took shape as a celebration of faithfulness, protection and promise-—one that shimmers with strong rhythms, undeniable energy and compelling pop hooks. The album finds Havens in strong, soaring voice as he invites listeners to find shelter and strength in God.
“If any theme has emerged, it would be ‘inspiration and motivation,’” Havens says. “Look at the titles we’ve selected: They reflect themes of ‘rise up, get up, God has your back, you’re not in this alone.’ We thought, ‘Let’s encourage people and let this be a weapon for people’s faith: something they can hold onto.’”
Havens himself felt a deep need to hold on after another loss struck: The band’s longtime soundman, Anthony Martinez, saw his newborn daughter die in infancy.
“I remember going to that funeral and seeing a casket that was way smaller than any casket should ever be.” Havens recalls. “I will never understand why tragedies like that happen in this life. It was in that moment of loss and sadness that our thoughts turned to eternity. ‘What is heaven going to be like? We began writing ‘Live On Forever’ and pulled from Revelation where it describes heaven as a place where there’s no more pain, no more crying, no more suffering.”
And as a sonic sanctuary for the hurting and the hopeful, Live on Forever celebrates a triumphant message in a convincing musical fashion. On the title track, Havens answers his spiritual questions with a clear answer delivered in clarion tenor. The word “forever” rings with an echo to reach cerulean skies as it joins a thunderous beat to topple the anguish and struggling: “Heaven is real,” he declares.
Yet for all the assertive, punchy rhythms and anthems that drive this album—-the band’s fifth with the Fair Trade label-—Live on Forever also showcases textures and timbres across an appealing spectrum. “Sunrise” lives up to its name, its dynamics unfolding gradually to reveal a vista of tight harmonies, while “Time of My Life” recalls the Cure’s “Close to Me” with its irresistible, uptempo dance beat.
Ask Havens to pick out a song that sums up the spirit of the albu m and he chooses “Battles.” “It was the last song we wrote and the fastest we wrote,” he says. “We don’t typically write songs fast; we’ll change lyrics and melodies and craft our songs carefully. But ‘Battles’ poured out, the music and lyrics, in one day.”
A cascading march rhythm rises up as Havens praises God for his ever-present protection: “Your love is my armor, I fear no evil/ Darkness runs from your light, so I won’t be afraid.” It’s followed in thrilling fashion by a thick bed of keyboard arpeggios and whiplash accents that smash out the chorus: “You’re going before me, and oceans are parting/ You’re fighting my battles.”
“It’s about standing up against fear and knowing God is always with us,” Havens explains. “It’s one of the takeaways we hope people get: ‘Don’t give up to fear.’ That captures the theme of the whole record and stands out as representing what we want it to be.”
Listeners who pick up on that track’s spirit—-and the overwhelming energy that marks Live On Forever-—are certain to resonate. What they might not know, though, is how Havens’ season of despair came to a seemingly supernatural end.
Havens shares how, half a world away from his home in Phoenix, he caught a small glimpse of heaven’s reassurance.
The band was touring in Amsterdam and had asked soundman Martinez and his wife to join following the tragic loss of their daughter in an effort to shower the couple with love and support.
While the band was sound checking, their wives explored the city and stumbled upon the perfect place to go for a post-show dinner: A Cafe called Pieper. It was the only time they had ever seen another use of the spelling that they had chosen for their daughter’s name.
After the show, they headed to the café, where they shared words of support and remembered Pieper. But upon getting up to leave, they noticed that the only thing on any of the walls was a framed document–an award given to the Pieper Cafe for hospitality. The date on the award–the only date visible in the entire cafe – was the same date as baby Pieper’s birthday.
“We were all in disbelief. Pieper’s name and birthdate on a wall, in a cafe, all the way on the other side of the world!”
Havens sums up the reassurance all took home that night: “This is where God’s angels fly: right in the middle of our loss. God gives us little glimpses to show us that he’s here, even in the midst of our pain.”
So it was with the songs The Afters wrote and recorded in the days to follow. It only takes a spark of God’s love to ignite a creative flame, and in turn a torch to light the path for all. As Havens declares on the joyful “Eyes of a Believer”: “So put your gloves on and pull out the fighter/ And never let anyone put out your fire.”
Havens knows from where he sings.
“When I think about the things that have challenged my faith the most-—the dark nights of my life-—these are also the very things that have strengthened my faith most. In the midst of tragedy, I’ve experienced God’s presence.”
And through that forever presence, those dark nights turned into bright, shining music.
“We worked on this record for almost two years and over those two years, it was a real season of loss,” Havens recalls. “But in the end, Live on Forever is about moving us to trust God, to stand up against fear. It’s an ‘amp you up’ record, an anthem for people’s lives: ‘God you are with me in all this. I’m not alone.’”