Review Summary: I'm feeling every song that this town could write.
Mat Kearney has carved out a unique space in the field popular music. The kid from Oregon who hitched a ride to Nashville on a whim got his start playing Tennessee-twang alternative rock songs with rapping, and gradually gravitated to a wider palate of pop-styles. With an ear for an irresistible hook and impeccable lyrical flow, Kearney won hearts and ears over with his earnestly sincere debut and sophomore efforts, with hits like “Undeniable” and “Closer to Love” keeping him afloat and unique in a genre that can so easily lend itself to blandness. His 2012 effort Young Love
was his most pop-oriented effort to date, with hit single “Ships in the Night” rocking the airwaves. But Young Love
also seemed to potentially precipitate Kearney’s fall into pop-malaise; the songs, while sparking, seemed to foretell a future sluggishness and blandness from which Kearney would never escape.
That was why I was not exactly looking forward to listening to Just Kids
. I didn't want witness the sellout of a favorite singer-songwriter. There's no pleasure in it.
So, imagine my pleasant, pleasant surprise to discover that Just Kids
isn’t just good. It’s great. It’s better than Young Love
, and it might even be better than Nothing Left to Lose
. As soon as the chorus of “Moving On” hits my ears, suddenly I realize that Kearney is doing the opposite of stagnating – he’s surging forward, pushing his boundaries, seeing how far he can take this strange combination of pop, rap, alt, and country. Certainly, the singles are something to marvel at: “Heartbeat” has an effortlessly infectious vocal chorus, “Billion” makes for an epic love song, and “One Heart” uses repetition over progression to make a consistently entertaining listen. But even the subtle, slow “Conversation,” the swaying, pounding “Let It Rain,” and the epic, throbbing dirge of “Miss You” sparkle with clever lyricism, toe-tapping melodies, and smart structure.
Fans of Kearney’s rapping may be disappointed to find that it holds a smaller place than usual on this record as opposed to his previous efforts. The slow jamming title track and the light, airy “Los Angeles” provide the most rhymes, but Just Kids mainly provides Kearney with an opportunity to use his singing voice to sing his way to the soul. Just Kids
does what any good pop album is supposed to do: the record provides songs that are not just crazy fun to listen to, but don’t wear thin on repeat listens, don’t pander to the ever-changing hints of popular trends. These songs stand all on their own, and Kearney drives them to greatness in a total work that surpasses all expectations of us doomsayers.