When it’s been nearly four years since you heard from an artist, things can be forgotten. We may have forgotten the way that artist made us feel when we listened to their songs. We may have replaced their best songs with current top tracks on Spotify or iTunes. We may have even forgotten they existed. Four years is a long time, specifically and especially in the music industry. But for Mat Kearney, the second you jump into Just Kids, you’ll remember what you’ve been missing this whole time.
Kearney’s previous album Young Love released in 2011 to critical acclaim, but many fans felt alienated when it was shown that most of what the songwriter had been known for (spoken word/light hip-hop) was practically gone. The 2011 album focused on the pop sensibilities Kearney explored on each of his previous records (Bullet in 2005, reworked into Nothing Left To Lose in 2006, as well as City of Black and White), but seemed to have lost the impact and power of the hip-hop style he’d become so loved for. But if there’s only one goal with Just Kids, it’s to win those fans back. There’s certainly more here than just that, but old fans will find everything they loved about the songwriter back in it’s right place.
The title track is one of the most beautiful interpretations of the old sound Kearney got signed for. A simplistic, retro style beat with some intricate piano laid over; the song welcomes back the spoken word rap flavor with full force. Kearney speaks on his childhood, school days, and references his hip-hop roots with shout outs to Wu-Tang Clan, Jordans, and Bob Marley. He even reminisces about some of his earliest fans in school, and where he’s been: “Never thought I’d ever make it quite this far / Teacher put up my photographs, say “son you’ll be a star” / It was smoking mirrors, running down through my veins / I kept on running downtown, running from God’s grace”.Opener “Heartbreak Dreamer” is a similar cut, bordering on a piano ballad with a beat and a hook that’ll stick in your head for days. The track is strong but seems to fall a bit flat when it seemingly ends at three and a half minutes, before going into a lengthy speech about empowerment. It’s a touching speech, but makes the track feel like it’s a bit too long.
Catchy tracks abound too, similar to much of what was on Young Love, like “Moving On”. The song channels an 80s style drum beat and Kearney’s crooning vocals over it. The songwriting is clutch as well: “And your voice still rings out through my mind / and the phone still twists down in my side / all the promises said that we left for dead / in the night / because I’m moving on / letting go / forget the past / and giving up the gold / life’s too short to stay where we are”. It showcases Kearney at some of his best songwriting, and after four years, it’s great to hear new lyrics from him. “Heartbeat” features quick witted lyrical content, and could be compared to Ed Sheeran’s latest, with a bit more pop sensibilities than before. “Billion” follows in the same vein as one of Sheeran’s hit cuts (“Sing”), but channels more of a Jack Johnson Hawaiian feel, surprisingly. It’s tracks like this that show how Kearney can grow. “Let It Rain” is a simple track with a simple message of letting things be the way they are, while the stripped back feel of “The Conversation” is a welcomed slow down during the record. The aforementioned track features female backup vocal from songwriter Young Summer.
Another staple to a Mat Kearney record is a song about a city, like “Rochester” or “Chicago”, and Just Kids has its own, in the form of the hip-hop fueled “Los Angeles”. The track details the tour life for Kearney, and describes L.A. in great detail from a songwriter perspective. “One Heart” is another pop-focused tune with the infusion of quick rap lines, and adds even more Ed Sheeran flavor to Just Kids. The finale “Shasta” is a beautiful, simple ballad about real life and love, with a tad bit of autotune. The beauty of this album, is that it works just as well as it used to for Kearney, and maybe even better now. It appears when listening to Just Kids that Kearney needed to get the pop side straightened out, then infuse the two together. This record is a perfect blend of what we came to love before, and the experimentation that went so well four years ago. In other words, it’s a welcome back that many of us have been waiting a long time for. Welcome back Mat, you’ve been missed.