Mat Kearney’s last previous album, Young Love, earned him a spot as one of my favorite artists and songwriters. Though he was on my radar before that with several solid records, Young Love struck a chord with me that I haven’t been able to shake since. His new album, JUST KIDS, isn’t a mere continuation of Young Love— it holds its own personality– but it does continue the best parts of Mat’s unique style that blends together infectious pop hooks, hip hop beats, singer/songwriter sensibilities, and spoken word delivery. He’s not afraid to be creative and just have fun making music that is personal, relatable, and a delight to the ears. JUST KIDS is all those things and more.
I could talk about listener interpretation versus artist interpretation of music for hours, probably, and there are plenty of different views on the subject. But in all honesty, there are some musicians, some albums, some songs, that just convince me that they get me. Regardless of what the artist meant when he was producing his songs, somehow the music and the lyrics together reach out and touch my heart in a rare and beautiful way. Mat Kearney’s work often does that for me. And while JUST KIDS might not reach out quite as much as Young Love did, it still takes my thoughts and emotions new places. It still surprised and delighted me the first time I heard it. It proves yet again why I love music the way I do.
JUST KIDS as a whole, Mat says, “is almost a concert record about a specific era of [his] life.” The album certainly brims with autobiographical and nostalgic lyrics. Yet as Mat’s music always seems to do, through both words and melody, it weaves in a drive to step forward into what’s next and a hope for the future.
“That kind of sums up a journey we all go on,” he says. “Loving where we come from, but then also not being afraid to move forward.”
1. Heartbreak Dreamer. The opener of this album is unique and might not be for everyone, but it has quickly become one of my favorite tracks on JUST KIDS. After the first two verses and choruses from Mat, a recording of a spoken word poet Anis Mojgani performing part of his beautiful piece “Shake the Dust” picks up the last third of the song. The words call forth the outsiders, or anyone who has ever felt like an outsider– which is nearly all of us– and reminds them of their innate value, no matter what they face. It’s a brave fusion of the two artistic mediums that pays off big time. Adding to this a sing-along catchy chorus, this should earn a spot as the most inspirational track on the album, yet as powerful as this song is, it has competition for that title. Regardless, it’s an awesome, brilliant song, and the most played one for me so far.
“I was turning 25 in a city that don’t sleep. I was feeling only half alive to the dreams that I keep.”
2. Moving On. The first 30 seconds or so of this head-bobbing track provide my favorite intro on the album. The rest of the track is great, too. The title explains clearly what this song is about. It’s a simple but strong message for those of us (read: everybody) who struggle with letting go and stepping forward. My only complaint about this song is a completely personal pet peeve: falsetto. I’ve warmed up to it on this tune and it works, but it just never appeals to me. Mat doesn’t sound bad, but I love his natural voice and I’m thankful he used the falsetto somewhat sparingly.
“Life’s too short to stay where we are.”
3. Just Kids. The title track has grown on me since it was released as a single a few months ago. It’s a mellow, reflective tune that paints a picture of days gone by. The verses are specific and personal, which I appreciate, but the same trait might put up some barriers to keep listeners from fully relating. But the chorus brings you back in enough that when the song ends, it’s almost hauntingly beautiful, sad but sweet.
4. Heartbeat. This was the first single released from JUST KIDS— and it deserves as much. It’s the catchiest, most upbeat tune on the album, with a fun video to boot. It also may or may not be my current ringtone.
“Nashville it’s burning tonight. You turn me right round, baby, like a 45. I’m feeling every song that this town could write.”
5. Billion. This song has kind of a world music flavor at times, which is fitting since the chorus says, “7 billion in the world, baby, I only wanna be with you.” It’s a fun, incredibly sweet love song. As it was the last single released before the album dropped, it’s getting a lot of play from Mat on TV appearances, etc. It’s a good song, but it’s almost too poppy for my taste and there are other songs I’d rather see featured.
6. One Black Sheep. This is probably tied with Heartbeat for my favorite single, and it is definitely one of my favorite tracks on the album. It’s the story of having your needs met and a good life, yet still feeling like an outsider or being discontent. But it’s not sad and doesn’t leave you with a pessimistic feeling. In fact, it’s an upbeat, foot-tapping tune, and another great one to sing along with. One of the great things about Mat’s last two albums is that he often tackles serious, seemingly dreary subjects with musical optimism. It resonates with the loneliness and isolation of the outsider, but delivers the message in a hope-wrapped package.
“There was money in my pocket, shoes on my feet, but I always felt like the one black sheep.”
7. Let It Rain. Combining some Eastern sounds with heavy bass, Let It Rain is a wonderful mid-tempo tune. It’s one of the more inspirational songs on the album, and if I had to predict one song to get air time on Christian radio, it would be this one. Its message is one of perseverance through whatever life throws at you. It’s definitely a great song to belt in the car when you’re driving (safely) in the rain.
“Can we turn down the road no one else seems to go, with a pioneer love?”
8. Ghost. Ghost is the saddest song on the album. It’s about losing someone you love and dealing with the loss. While it presents a serious subject, it doesn’t drain energy from the record. In fact, its ethereal sound is layered with a solid beat, and Mat drops into a rap that reminds me of his earliest music (see: Undeniable or Bullet). It’s a heavy, reflective song, but it’s no ballad.
9. Los Angeles. This is probably my least favorite of the singles from JUST KIDS, perhaps because I have no romanticized or nostalgic feelings toward the title city. I like the style of Mat’s spoken word verses, but once again, the lyrics are so specific it’s hard to relate. But that’s a personal preference, I suppose. I still really appreciate Mat’s ability to tell his story in his songs. The chorus has a great groove and I can envision singing along to it with my CentriKid team on the drive into California back in 2009. Huh. Maybe I can romanticize it after all.
10. Miss You. If I’d been putting these tracks in order, this one would immediately follow Ghost on the album. It’s the perfect bookend, presenting a similar theme of losing someone close to you. Yet, as Mat has said, Miss You is more of a celebration of the person’s life. As such, it’s more upbeat (which is actually probably while it’s pushed further down on the track listing– the latter part of the album needs more energy) with a driving feeling reminiscent of some of the songs on Young Love.
“Every time I break these chains. Every time I feel this pain. Nothing really ever changed. I’m gonna miss you.”
11. The Conversation (feat. Young Summer). This duet is a sweet, beautiful, acoustic ballad written by Mat and his wife, Annie, during a time when they were fighting. Mat says it’s about “two people wanting to connect and trying their best to do it.” It’s not the kind of song I would come to a Mat Kearney album for, but it’s an intimate, honest, romantic track that I do really like when I take the time to sit down and listen to it.
12. One Heart. My favorite track on the back half of the album, One Heart also offers some of the best rap verses. The song combines them seamlessly with the catchy pop vocals that follow. It’s one of my favorite Mat Kearney styles– storytelling spoken word verses that are personal yet relatable and build up powerfully into inspirational, reflective, easy-to-sing-along-to choruses and bridges. Despite that this description might sound formulaic, the songs always feel fresh to me and have their own unique spins. I appreciate the range of Mat’s creative style. The message of this song revolves around outsiders and to me, the longing for community.
“Like a stolen car tonight on a road with a broken lines. Running all the changing lights to hide what’s falling from your eyes.”
13. Shasta. Mat wrote this song about North Shasta Loop, the street he grew up on in Oregon. I’ll be honest, it’s my most skipped-over track on the album. It’s slow, stripped down to basically electric guitar and vocals. Which is fine. Every album can use one or two slower songs. But combine that with mostly falsetto singing, and unfortunately he kind of loses me. But once again, that’s a personal preference. I am a big fan of the lyrics. They brilliantly combine nostalgia and looking forward.
“One last time through the woods, in my old neighborhood. It tastes so bittersweet, I can’t believe it.”
I know it’s early yet, but I have a strong feeling JUST KIDS will be one of my favorite albums of the year. It certainly holds the top spot so far. Music, especially music like this, is such an important part of my life. I’m so thankful for artists like Mat who continue to use their creativity and abilities to produce beauty we can all enjoy.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION: Have you listened to JUST KIDS? What are your favorite songs?