I Can Only Imagine (MercyMe song)

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"I Can Only Imagine"
Single by MercyMe
from the album The Worship Project and Almost There
A-side "Word of God Speak"
Released 2001
(See release history)
Format CD single
Digital download
Recorded

1999 and 2001 in the United States

  • Ivy Park
  • The Indigo Room
  • Paradise Sound
  • IBC Studios
Genre Christian rock, alternative rock, pop rock
Length 4:08
Label INO/Curb
Writer(s) Bart Millard
Producer(s) Pete Kipley
Certification 2x Platinum (RIAA)
MercyMe singles chronology
"I Can Only Imagine"
(2001)
"Spoken For"
(2002)

"I Can Only Imagine" (sometimes shortened to "Imagine") is a single recorded by Christian rock band MercyMe. Written and composed by Bart Millard, the song, based around a main piano track, was inspired by the death of Millard's father and considers what it would be like in Heaven and to be standing before God. The song was first issued as a track on MercyMe's 1999 album The Worship Project, which was released on an independent record label. The song was re-recorded and included on their 2001 major-label debut album Almost There as the fifth song on the album.

"I Can Only Imagine" was released in 2001 as the album's lead single. It gained significant airplay on Christian radio formats before crossing over to mainstream radio formats such as adult contemporary and Top 40 in late 2003 and into 2004; to aid in promotion to these markets, a double A-side physical single (combined with "Word of God Speak") was released in 2003. It charted on several formats, including the Billboard Adult Contemporary (where it peaked at No. 5) and the Hot 100 (where it peaked at No. 71). In 2002, "I Can Only Imagine" earned the Dove Awards for 'Pop/Contemporary Recorded Song of the Year' and 'Song of the Year'; Millard earned the Dove Award 'Songwriter of the Year' at the same ceremony. The song has been certified 2x platinum RIAA for sales of over two million digital downloads, and is the first (and so far only) Christian single to reach that milestone.

Background[edit]

"I Can Only Imagine" was the debut single for United States contemporary Christian and Christian rock band MercyMe. The father of Bart Millard, the band's vocalist, died in 1991. Millard was 18 at the time.[1][2] Millard began writing the words "I can only imagine" on items when he was thinking about his father.[3] During the recording of the band's 1999 independent album The Worship Project, MercyMe needed one more song to fill out the album.[4] Millard, alone on a bus in the middle of the night, finally wrote the lyrics to the song by drawing on his thoughts and personal faith about what one would experience standing before God in Heaven. Millard attests that "['I Can Only Imagine'] is one of the only songs I have ever written where there wasn't any mistakes, it was just written the way it is and left at that",[4] and estimated that it took him only ten minutes to write the lyrics.[3]

In writing the music for the song, however, the band faced more difficulty; Millard noted that "at first it was a fast song... it was all these random ideas".[4] Keyboardist Jim Bryson noted that "we were literally tearing down the stuff... [Millard] and I were talking about arranging it differently and doing a slower version, so we just tried out a piano intro... it was literally the first thing I played. It wasn't anything to do with me, I think it was just a God thing. [Millard] said 'here it is, this is what's going to happen', and we laid the song down in about five minutes."[4] At that time, the other MercyMe members were Robby Shaffer on drums and percussion, Nathan Cochran on bass guitar and Michael Scheuchzer on guitar. This line-up recorded the first version of the song for The Worship Project.[2][5] In 2006, it was included in the 'Platinum Edition' of Almost There.[6]

Composition[edit]

A sample of "I Can Only Imagine". MercyMe's debut single, "I Can Only Imagine" is "a passionate piano-driven ballad. The song considers what it would be like to be in the presence of God. Delivered with conviction, the song is emotionally compelling".[7]

Problems playing this file? See media help.

"I Can Only Imagine" is a ballad with a length of four minutes and eight seconds.[7] The song is set in the key of E major and has a moderately slow tempo of 80 beats per minute with a vocal range from B3–G5.[8] The song opens up with only a piano, and builds up to include guitar and drums.[9] Millard is credited with both the lyrics and music to the song.[10] The song was produced by Pete Kipley, who had worked with MercyMe previously[1] as well as with artists including Rebecca St. James, Phil Wickham and Lincoln Brewster.[11]

The lyrics to the song are based around the narrator wondering what it will be like in Heaven and to be standing before God.[7] Regarding this theme, Millard explained to Fox News that "I was always told that if he could choose, he would rather be in Heaven than here with me. As a Christian I believed that, but as an 18-year-old it was a little hard to swallow. So the questions in the song came from me asking God what was so great about Him that my dad would rather be there."[1]

Release and promotion[edit]

MercyMe's lead singer-songwriter, Bart Millard (left) and drummer, Robby Shaffer, performing in February 2008.

"I Can Only Imagine" was re-recorded for their major-label debut record Almost There and released as its lead single in 2001.[12] The album was recorded in various locations: Ivy Park, The Indigo Room, Paradise Sound and IBC Studios.[10] The single gained radio airplay on some contemporary Christian formats; by November, it peaked at number-one on the Radio & Records Christian AC format and in the top twenty of the Radio & Records Christian CHR chart.[13][14]

In 2003, a Dallas mainstream radio station, 100.3 Wild-FM, first played the song on its morning show, The Fitz Radio Program.[2][15][16] They had responded to a caller's repeated requests and the urgings of the program's producer, Todd Sheppard.[1][3] The song soon became the most requested and most played song on the station.[16][17] After hearing the song played on the station, Millard called-in and spoke with the crew; MercyMe then came in and played the song live.[16]

As other stations around the country caught on, MercyMe's label, INO Records, partnered with Curb Records.[16][18][19] They marketed the single to wider audiences, such as Top 40 radio.[18][19][20] In September, INO and Curb also released a double A-side physical single, "I Can Only Imagine/Word of God Speak".[12] The latter track was co-written by Millard with the band's producer, Kipley.[21] Eventually, the song cracked into secular charts, including the Billboard Hot 100[22] and the Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks charts.[23]

Impact[edit]

MercyMe did not expect "I Can Only Imagine" to gain mainstream success, in part due to its explicit references to Jesus and Heaven.[15][16] Millard noted that the band joked around about "the top five songs never to cross over,[15] and they had included "I Can Only Imagine" on that list.[15][16] Millard also believed some radio stations were playing the song to prove it could not succeed on mainstream radio.[16] The song had a significant effect on the band's musical image; in an interview, Millard commented that "We were a rock band when we started 11 years ago. But we kind of became the 'adult contemporary poster child' when 'I Can Only Imagine' took off".[24]

Music video[edit]

Millard holding his father's photograph in the music video.

A music video was released for "I Can Only Imagine".[25][26] Millard recalled the video's inspiration: "I just kept seeing all these people holding picture frames [at MercyMe concerts] that are empty because we all carry these people with us in some way. I've had so many people after a show pull out a picture of someone they've lost. These people embrace these photos and I just thought how can we tap into that".[26] The video features everyday people as well as several music artists including Michael Tait, Tammy Trent, Bob Herdman, and Jesse Katina, each holding an empty picture frame to signify their loss of a loved one; as the video progresses, they are holding pictures of their loved ones including Millard with his father's photograph.[26]

The video opens with a shot of an empty room and a chair, shifting to show a young boy climbing up a flight of stairs. The camera then shifts to the band before returning to the boy, now in an attic which is filled with many empty picture frames. The video alternates between shots of the boy and the band before shifting to individual shots of other people, each holding an empty picture frame. As the other instruments join in, the camera comes back to the band, focusing on them before returning to shots of the people, whose picture frames now contain pictures of deceased relatives. At the end of the video, the camera returns to the boy, now running down a street with an empty frame, climaxing with him lying down in a field with the empty frame.[25][26]

Reception[edit]

Critical response[edit]

Critical reception for "I Can Only Imagine" was positive. Steve Losey of Allmusic commented that "[the song] is a passionate piano-driven ballad. The song considers what it would be like to be in the presence of God. Delivered with conviction, the song is emotionally compelling".[7] Jesus Freak Hideout's reviewer Kevin Chamberlin felt "The lyrics for the song are amazing. If you haven't listened to the lyrics, because you're afraid of hearing pop music, get over it and listen to it."[27] Kevin McNeese of NewReleaseTuesday commented that "The definite highlight on [Almost There] is the worship/ballad 'I Can Only Imagine'... The song starts out with just piano that instantly invokes chills and builds dynamically into a powerful display of drums and guitar. But what makes the song are the lyrics, penned by Bart Millard himself. The song speaks about that day that we all dream about when we finally meet Jesus... It's a song that can't be listened to with eyes open".[9]

Chart performance[edit]

"I Can Only Imagine" debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 for the chart week of 11 October 2003 at No. 76.[22] The song peaked at No. 71 for two weeks and spent sixteen non-consecutive weeks on the Hot 100.[13][22] On the Adult Contemporary chart, "I Can Only Imagine" debuted at No. 29 for the chart week of 23 May 2003, with an eventual peak of No. 5 for the chart week of 8 September 2003; in all, "I Can Only Imagine" spent thirty weeks on the chart.[13][23]

On the Adult Top 40 chart, "I Can Only Imagine" debuted at No. 39 for the chart week of 9 August 2003 and reached a peak position of No. 27, holding that spot for three consecutive weeks; in all, the song spent twenty-six weeks on the chart.[13][28] On the Mainstream Top 40 chart, the song debuted at No. 37 for the chart week of 12 July 2003, reaching an eventual peak of No. 33.[13][29] On the Country Songs chart, the song debuted at No. 58 for the chart week of 27 December 2003, reaching an eventual peak of No. 52, which it held for two weeks.[30] According to Mike Curb on the Curb Records website, "I Can Only Imagine" also peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Sales chart for ten weeks, No. 1 on the Radio & Records Christian AC chart for two weeks,[13][14] and No. 15 on the Christian CHR chart.[13]

In April 2010, "I Can Only Imagine" was certified platinum by the RIAA, signifying sales of over 1,000,000 digital downloads.[31] It is the first single by any artist in the Christian music genre to go platinum.[32] The song was certified 2x platinum in 2014.[31]

Awards and accolades[edit]

"I Can Only Imagine" earned two GMA Dove Awards in 2002; 'Pop/Contemporary Recorded Song of the Year' and 'Song of the Year'.[33][34] Millard also won 'Songwriter of the Year' at the same ceremony.[33][34] In November 2009, the song was played on board Space Shuttle Atlantis as a wake-up call for Barry E. Wilmore during STS-129.[35]

Other versions[edit]

The original version of "I Can Only Imagine" was a track on MercyMe's 1999 independent release The Worship Project.[5] In August 2006, both an acoustic and live form (as well as the original 1999 version) were included in the 'Platinum edition' of Almost There.[6] MercyMe recorded a version of the song for their iTunes Originals album.[36][37] In 2009, two further variants were included on their compilation album 10; a 'symphony version' featuring the London Symphony Orchestra, and a live version.[38] Demi Lovato has also covered the song.

"I Can Only Imagine" has also been covered by several artists.[39] In 2002 Amy Grant released a reworked version of the song (titled "Imagine" and paired with "Sing the Wondrous Love of Jesus") on her album, Legacy... Hymns and Faith.[40] In 2003, Jeff Carson and Kathryn Scott each issued variants of the song;[40][41] Carson's version peaked at No. 50 on the Country Songs chart.[42] In 2005 Wynonna Judd issued her form of the song;[40] while in 2007 Emerson Drive provided theirs.[43] The song was covered again in 2010 by Marie Osmond and in 2013 by gospel artist Tamela Mann.

Track listing[edit]

CD release[12][44][45][46]
  1. "I Can Only Imagine" – 4:08 (Bart Millard)[8][39]
  2. "Word of God Speak" – 3:07 (Peter Kipley, Millard)[21][47]

Release history[edit]

Date Territory Label Format
2001[12] United States INO Airplay
23 September 2003[12] INO/Curb CD
4 January 2005[31] INO/Epic Digital

Charts and certifications[edit]

References[edit]

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