I can still remember the first time I heard Mat Kearney's breakthrough single, the title track to 2006's fantastic Nothing Left to Lose. It was an evening in late summer 2006, and my sister had just sent me a large assortment of songs she'd gotten for free off iTunes for some promotion. Out of the two or three dozen songs, "Nothing Left to Lose" was the one that caught my ear the most. It was a perfect summer song: a breezy piece of acoustic pop that fit right with my music tastes at the time and immediately became a part of my summer soundtrack. I eventually picked up the CD, and I was a bit surprised at what I heard. Roughly half the songs were straightforward singer/songwriter fare, in the vein of the title track, but on the other 6 or 7 songs, Kearney blended pop with hip hop, rapping verses that flowed and built into big pop choruses. That genre blending, which at first sounded jarring and alien to my young and not-so-experienced ears, kept me coming back years after I picked that record up, and I'm still, to this day, discovering and rediscovering favorite songs from it.
I fell so in love with the freestyle vibe of "Nothing Left to Lose" that by the time the follow up, entitled City of Black & White, dropped in 2009, I found myself furiously disappointed that Kearney (or perhaps his label) had decided to drop the hip hop element of his sound entirely. The record was a straightforward summer pop album, and I did enjoy it for what it was, but on my first few listens, I noticed only 2 or 3 standout tracks and was ready to set it aside and write Kearney off as a talented gentleman who just went in the wrong direction with his music. It was a classic example of my expectations coloring my actual opinion of an album, but thankfully, I decided to give it a few more chances, and I'm glad I did. Once I set aside my expectations for another Nothing Left to Lose, I was able to view City for what it is: a stunning collection of well crafted pop songs that is solid from top to bottom. Today, both records probably sit somewhere in my all time top 25.
Which brings me to Kearney's third full length major label effort, Young Love. Kearney changes directions once again, finding a middle ground of sorts between the hip hop influence of Nothing Left to Lose and the folk infused pop of City of Black and White. The most notable thing about these new songs is how beat heavy they are, especially on the first half of the record. Kearney has said that they essentially made this album like it was a hip hop project, focusing on the beats and production as much as the lyrics and music. That's apparent from the second track and album highlight "Ships in the Night," which with a little label push, could have been a huge hit on the radio this summer. The song is flawlessly produced, layered in synths, shimmering keys, and a persistent beat that will make sure the song earns a spot on your summer playlist. Kearney speak/sings the verses, making the track reminiscent of the best tracks on Nothing Left to Lose, and builds to the album's biggest chorus. Opener and first single "Hey Mama" gets things started with an irresistable summer-esque vibe and a classic Kearney hook, but doesn't make much sense as a lead single next to a song as good as "Ships."
"Sooner or Later" continues in the same poppy vein, with a chorus that blends the best of City of Black and White with Kearney's new beat heavy sound. On the chorus, Kearney sings in a smooth falsetto that, when mixed with the beat and production, gives the song an almost dancey vibe. "Learning to Love Again" is Kearney in his element, a laid back acoustic-based track that sounds like it could have fit with the more straightforward moments of Nothing Left to Lose or with the final few tracks of City of Black and White. The echoing harmonies throughout are reminiscent of the chilling closing moments of the last record, and add a subtle beauty to an already good song. The song kicks off the stellar second half of the record, continuing into "Down," which opens with a jangly guitar riff that recalls "Mr. Jones" by the Counting Crows and builds into an anthem, while "She Got the Honey" might have the record's most memorable hook. The song is an enormously fun, catchy jam that's almost guaranteed to make you smile, and "Young, Dumb and In Love" pulled me in with an infectious opening riff and never let go.
In true Mat fashion, he saves two of his finest, more subdued songs for last. The first, "Rochester," was released a year ago as part of the Black Swan Shadow EP, a vinyl EP that Kearney sold only at the shows on his acoustic tour last year. Mat played the song almost nightly on that tour, alongside a slowed down cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark," so perhaps it's appropriate that "Rochester" finds Mat Kearney playing up his Springsteen influence in an obvious way for the first time. The song, a gorgeous piece of acoustic storytelling, is extremely reminiscent of Nebraska-era Bruce, most specifically the song "Highway Patrolman." Springsteen recorded that record on an 8-track in his bedroom, painting a stark portrait of the trials and tribulations of middle class America, and Mat's song clearly owes a lot to it, both in sound and in tone. Mat spins a tale (his father's) of escapism and redemption, two themes that Bruce is no stranger to, and the result is probably the best song on the record.
"I would hop the fence out to those government fields
Run till there was nothing left to feel
Lying there, watching planes just disappear
Knowing one day I'm gonna fly on out of here."
When Kearney sings those lines, sparsely accompanied by his acoustic and what sounds like a distant steel guitar, you can almost see the scene he's describing. Kearney hasn't done a lot of storytelling songs in this vein (the last album had one, in the form of "Annie") but if this song is any indication, he should be doing a lot more of them. If he's looking for another new direction to take his sound on the next record, I wouldn't mind hearing a Nebraska-esque album.
The gorgeous "Seventeen" closes the album out, and I can't imagine a better way to end the record. Young Love is an album about the wonderment and naivety of falling in love for the first time and about the dreams you have as a kid before life gets in the way. Kearney has said that he tried to write from a more innocent perspective, and the result is a record that is very hopeful throughout. "Seventeen," interestingly enough, comes across as the most hopeful track of all. It tells the tale of a man who, at the age of 17, gets a girl pregnant, but she has a miscarriage, he loses her and he never gets over it. The years fly by, and he meets and marries the girl of his dreams, and on the night she has a baby, he remembers a similar night when he was younger, when everything went wrong. He's scared shitless, both that something like that could happen again and at how his life is about to change forever. When the song hits the bridge, you can almost feel the passage of time, and the final verse and chorus wrap the album up perfectly. Because despite the fact that the character has experienced pain and suffering and isn't as naive as he once was, the final moments of the record find him coming back to the innocence and wonderment of young love, and there could be no more perfect finale to Kearney's record than that.
Young Love isn't Kearney's best record: I think that title still, even after all these years, belongs to Nothing Left to Lose, but Kearney has become one of my favorite artists working today, simply on the basis of two terrific albums (and now a third) with sounds and themes that are always tweaked a bit, but remain familiar enough to be welcoming. Only time will tell if Young Love will reach the same level for me as the other two, but for now, it stands as one of my favorite records in what has been an extraordinarily strong year for music (with much more great stuff on the way), and a big part of the soundtrack to my summer. And if Kearney's next three records are half as good as these three, he'll be one of those guys I follow for a long time. Here's hoping.