Oregonian native singer-songwriter, Mat Kearney has carved a unique pop niche in the last decade, releasing material that is well composed, diverse, and heartfelt. With a long extended play of EP’s and five full length albums, Kearney has had a lot of content to show for his creativity.
I can thank my sister for Mat Kearney. She had a copy of Nothing Left to Lose, which I of course took (#sorrynotsorrysis) and the album became a compilation of summer camp anthems. I loved the feel of Nothing Left to Lose when I first heard it. It’s an easy listen with good vocal range, compositions, and solid lyrics. But, summer camps ended and I began to explore other music, so Mat Kearney fell off my radar for a number of years. It wasn’t until last year when my Bible Study co-leader played his single, Ships In the Night. I had one of those, “Why did I ever let this get away from me!” reactions. This song is one of Kearney’s superlative tracks that all fans revere. Hearing this song repeatedly got me to rediscover Kearney’s discography, which included City of Black and White and the rest of Young Love. Both of those albums were and still are very enjoyable for me. They’re loaded with sing-along caliber pop anthems armed with earworm hooks and substance. Now that I’ve began to enjoy Mat Kearney, I heard he was releasing a new album during last semester and glued my ears to Spotify. Now, here I am, PUMPED to write about this new record, Just Kids!
I remember when I was in middle school and mainstream hip-hop moguls like Jay-Z reigned over the radio waves in the early 2000’s. Heartbreak Dreamer begins this album with an old school feel that brings me back to those tunes. It has this cinematic feel with a droned out child-like chant behind a piano. Kearney’s vocals are still spot-on and natural, but he also fades in and out of rapping and singing, which occurs consistently throughout these tracks. The end of the song samples a live, spoken word piece from a friend of his. The poem plays against the same beat for the rest of this track. For anyone who might not understand the background of the album’s lyrical content, the spoken word passage might feel abstract. I liked the song as a whole, but the beat did feel exhausting on the ears after nearly six minutes.
The title track is the second single released last December and is probably one of the more somber songs on this release. Constructed by a simple snap clap beat with another piano line to drive the melody, the song dives into a nostalgic self-narrative about Kearney’s upbringing as a youth conflicted between God and self. Heartbeat was the first song Kearney dropped to promote Just Kids. This is a song where he hangs on throwback sonic influences from late 80’s and early 90’s grooves. Heartbeat is a sunny day bubble gum track with an infectious hook and is perhaps the liveliest song on this whole album. This is an entertaining track that will light up dance floors! One Black Sheep retains the folk element quintessential to Kearney’s sound that he molded in his last three albums, with a bouncing melodic chord progression to the guitar line. With lyrics telling the story of his musical career, it’s bound to have listeners singing along every time. The last song, Shasta, is a dim way to end the album with a reverb heavy guitar to accompany Kearney’s falsetto voice that nimbly takes you on a hearts and flowers journey of his old neighborhood. The later half of the song showcases a cool vocoder/auto-tune effect o Kearney’s vocals that add to the tone of the song itself. The end of Shasta glides into an atmospheric passage that reminds me of ambient outfits like Hammock and Lowercase Noises. This relaxing vibe gives Shasta personality and depth.
Young Love was considered the first of many inspirational shifts for Kearney in writing styles. There was a fusion of dance, pop, singer songwriter, and even the first glimpses of a hip hop influence on songs like Ships In the Night, Count On Me, and Chasing the Light (which continues to be a favorite). A lot of those similar song structures transfer to this album, but have less of a sugary vibrancy to them. Through all of the sifting between genres, Mat Kearney has ultimately crafted a brand of singer songwriter that isn’t afraid to sail uncharted musical waters. Just Kids is no exception. Kearney even mentions in an interview that Ships In the Night was a teaser for what fans could expect on the new release. He wasn’t kidding. He expands on this idea of hip-hop style fusion with a vast majority of this new album. In fact, if you followed the singles that were being released on Spotify and Youtube, you could hear the evolution of tracks that further embraced that hip hop vibe until you got songs like Los Angeles, which have rapped verses and a sung chorus. Even when I heard the title track, I expected that the next logical step for Kearney would be to write songs like Los Angeles and Billion. I wasn’t sure how to brace myself for it, because beforehand, I was used to the Kearney who wrote Nothing Left To Lose. I was pleasantly surprised.
Even on the tracks where he raps a majority of the song, you can still feel the craftsmanship behind the delivery, production, and lyrical content. Even more impressive to me is that Kearney writes a majority of this record himself. Co writers were only present to tweak certain nitpicking bits. It’s not like he had total reliance on someone else to craft these songs. It shows that not only does he have an ear for catchy pop hooks, he knows how to experiment with them. This new found style surprisingly works for Kearney, especially when you consider that he got his start in music writing poetry. You ultimately hear this amalgam of influences on this record that feels like a natural culmination of elements from all other releases into this one album. Lyrics For all the experimentation that Kearney has undertaken musically, he’s never strayed too far from the path with lyrical content. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Throughout his records you hear stories of his upbringing, adolescent angst, broken relationships, love, and God. They’re all topics that provide substance and even a little bit of fun. On Just Kids, you hear more of a palate of lyrical themes but the focus seems to be on how Kearney grew up as a kid in Oregon. Songs like Just Kids, One Black Sheep, and Shasta help paint a vivid picture about the experiences that he had feeling odd, keeping to himself, and writing. Other songs follow suit of previous records that have an uplifting twist to more recycled themes in pop music, like Let It Rain. There’s just enough balance between the more serious and not serious themes to make this album feel accessible yet retain its authenticity.
Production On Young Love, Kearney focused much more on the clap beat war drum to drive most of the instrumentation – making a pop/folk/singer-songwriter smoothie. As I said earlier, this release is much more experimental and is actually pretty dynamic. Kearney makes good choices about what beats sound robust, appropriate, and still maintains his singer-songwriter roots. More than that, the obvious 90’s influence on songs like Heartbeat and the hip hop laden bounce to many other tracks give this record personality. Even in the title track, he talks about cranking Wu-Tang Clan and being inspired by listening to 90’s R&B. The homage to influences from his youth makes this listen feel that much more potent and personal. The more impressive part is that Kearney actually produced a lot of this record. Conclusion This is a fun release that you could always revisit, has a track for every occasion, has some depth to it, and feels organic. I have few things to complain about with this record. It’s Kearney’s most ambitious release and has this to add to an already successful and impressive discography. Score: 94/100