Mat Kearney has always been a bit ahead of the curve as far as pop music was concerned. In 2006, he burst onto the scene with Nothing Left to Lose, a lingering set of songs that blended elements of pop, folk, and hip-hop into a sonic cocktail that sounded like no one else in the industry. The album brought a bit of mainstream success—for the summer pop tune, "Nothing Left to Lose"—but the most interesting songs were the ones where Kearney bent or blended genres on a whim. With spoken word or rap-driven songs like "Undeniable," "Bullet," "Can't Break Her Fall," "In the Middle," and "Renaissance," Kearney not only marked off his own unique corner of the sensitive Greys Anatomy balladeer market, but he also established a charismatic personality that rarely comes through on debut albums. The freestyle nature of his rap sections allowed Kearney to go much deeper into autobiographical territory than he would normally have been able to do with a three or four-minute pop song, and as he told us his stories of growing up, falling in love, getting in car accidents, and launching a music career, he suddenly felt like a guy we'd been listening to for five or 10 years—rather than for just 13 tracks.
I've remained interested in Kearney's story ever since, but it would be inaccurate to claim that his next few records were as unique, nuanced, or autobiographical as Nothing Left to Lose. 2009's City of Black and White ditched the hip-hop aesthetic entirely, in favor of Laurel Canyon-favored folk-pop. 2011's Young Love, meanwhile, was produced like a hip-hop record, with booming beats and a small handful of samples, but pulled its punches rather than allow Kearney to return to his roots. Songs like "Ships in the Night" and "Chasing the Light" had sing-speak verses that recalled Nothing Left to Lose, but even on those numbers, Kearney still seemed hesitant to go full-rap or be as daring as he once was. And ultimately, Young Love could be summed up less as a return to form for Kearney, and more as a harbinger of the kind of bombastic pop that fun. would popularize on the next year's Some Nights.
This narrative explains precisely why I'm so taken with Just Kids, Mat Kearney's fourth major label LP, and his first in three and a half years. For the first time since Nothing Left to Lose, Kearney seems comfortable jumping genres again. He reveals that fact right away, dropping a rap over the militaristic beat of opening track "Heartbreak Dreamer." It's a potent introductory statement, flitting between a sample of childish singsong chant, Kearney's lyrical verses, and an eye-of-the-storm chorus. When the song hits another sample—a two minute excerpt of Anis Mojgani's moving beat poem"Shake the Dust"—the song ascends to a higher place. The poem, an inspirational paean for the forgotten and downtrodden, meshes perfectly with the handclaps, drumbeats, and keyboard melodies of "Heartbreak Dreamer," and feels like it could have been recorded for the specific purpose of being used in this song. The fact that is wasn't only further establishes "Dreamer" as Kearney's most adventurous and ambitious piece of songwriting in nine years.
For its part, Just Kids is never as melodically lovely or lush as City of Black and White, and it can't quite match Young Love on a hook-for-hook basis. The record shows its flaws when Kearney tries to do a song without a spoken word segment, with numbers like "Heartbeat," "Let it Rain," and "Miss You" arguably tilting toward generic pop territory. That's surprising for Kearney, especially considering the fact that Young Love made a play for the mainstream without sacrificing the quirkiness and charisma that has always made him great as an artist. This record's plain pop songs aren't bad at all, but they do sound like standard radio fare, which has never been a problem before. The ballads aren't quite as striking this time around, either, though numbers like "Ghost" and "The Conversation" are still more than welcome additions to the Kearney catalog.
Where Just Kids really does thrive is in its commitment to storytelling. This is the closest Kearney has ever come to replicating the feel of the jagged and personal Nothing Left to Lose, and that fact shines through when he ditches the traditional pop song format and goes off in exploration of different genres. It's not just hip-hop, either: the title track, an autobiographical song about Kearney and his wife, has an unhurried R&B feel that recalls both Drake and Frank Ocean, while the booming "Billion" has elements of everything from EDM to African chant to 80s funk-pop. Both "Moving On" and "Shasta," meanwhile, play around with vocoder in a fashion that nods to Bon Iver and Kanye West.
By throwing all of these different elements at the canvas, Kearney is able to mold song structures to his will. And just like he once bent genres to tell audiences who he was in the first place, here, he's expanding his story further. As the album title implies, the core narrative here is about growing up. The title track illustrates his earliest music influences (Bob Marley and Wu Tang Clan, to name a few), while recounting his first experiences laying down raps "over instrumental tapes." "One Black Sheep" starts with Kearney in Oregon, feeling like the guy who will never fit in, and ends with him heading off to Nashville to pursue his dreams. And "Los Angeles" is like Butch Walker's "Going Back/Going Home," a full career manifesto that takes Kearney from a "thousand cap room…only eight people came" to hearing his name called on Letterman.
For all of its different threads, Nothing Left to Lose was, at its core, a record about growing up and finding a place to belong. It's a theme that Kearney has explored again and again throughout his career, from a hometown slipping away in the City of Black and White, to one last carefree summer of Young Love. Just Kids continues the story, though now, all of those old stomping grounds feel a bit different. That's intentional: Kearney knows that his listeners have grown up along with him, and that most of us have now traded unpredictable youth for adulthood routine. As a result, Just Kids is Kearney's most openly nostalgic record ever, an album that gazes back fondly on the places we used to call home, the people we used to call best friends, or the dreams we used to carry around with us.
"Hometown remind me where I come from," he begs in the reverb-soaked beauty, "Shasta," before reminding himself that "we've got miles left to go, to a place that I don't know." Those two lines perfectly sum up what Just Kids is all about. It's a record meant for looking back at all of the good times, while simultaneously recognizing that there are so many good times still to come. It's for those mornings when you check Timehop and get warped back to high school antics or summertime adventures, or to the people you lost touch with along the way. But it's also a record for cherishing the people in your life now, and for soundtracking all of the remarkable adventures still waiting further on down this big old dusty highway that we call life. Springsteen has always said that he followed specific themes, characters, and stories throughout his entire career. Not enough artists make those kinds of interconnected discographies anymore, but Kearney is absolutely one of them, and Just Kids is a vital new chapter, both for the songwriter and for the people who came of age listening to his songs. It's one of the first great records of 2015.