In a little over a decade Mat Kearney has built a career (and life) most would envy. He’s sold over a million albums, has had a half dozen singles, traveled the world, married a model and continues to inspire his countless fans. Just Kids, the fifth album from the Nashville-based singer-songwriter is arguably his most personal and honest record, but it is far from his best. For those who like a record to be one in which the artist reveals a lot of himself, then there will be plenty to love about Just Kids. Moreover, those who enjoy Kearney’s spoken-word-cum-hip-hop vocal stylings found on Bullet and Nothing Left to Lose, will also find plenty to relish in. But neither of those things makes an album and for its numerous charms, Just Kids still falls way short. For starters, the album’s sonic veneers veers heavily towards commercialism and accessibility and maybe that’s viable to some, but at this point in his career he should be crafting albums that are daring, innovative, original and challenging. Just Kids is neither of those things.
The album opens with “Heartbreak Dreamer,” a deeply personal effort that more or less serves as the album’s thesis. The song is good but nothing says knockout about it at all. Album openers are supposed to pop and sizzle and make the listener want more, “Heartbreak Dreamer” never really does that. At the four-minute mark, the song yields to poetry slam champion Anis Mojgani reading “Shake the Dust.” After the tepid introduction that is “Heartbreak Dreamer,” one would expect Kearney to follow with something powerful. Instead, he offers up the softball “Moving On,” a generic effort that sounds like something he’s sung countless times before. The album more or less begins with the title track, a personal autobiography that has a spartan chorus and an immediacy that feels palpable. Whereas it felt like Kearney was mailing it on the first two, “Just Kids” feels like he’s coming alive.
Lead single “Heartbeat” follows and matches a hook-heavy chorus with an assortment of blips and bleeps. It’s fair to say the entire song might be completely machinated, but then again this is 2015, sometimes that’s to be expected. After the cookie-cutter banality of “Billion,” he pushes forward with “One Black Sheep,” a song about his childhood and adolescence that feels like an extension of “Heartbreak Dreamer,” but digs deeper. There’s definite singalong qualities and one can easily see “One Black Sheep” being pushed as the album’s next single. But just as it feels like the album is going to gain some momentum, Kearney offers up “Let it Rain,” another softball that does little to make a lasting impression. At this point in his career, there should not be songs this derivative and this unchallenging and that very problem is what makes Just Kids so hard to embrace.
Kearney has always been likable for his ability to sound sincere and nowhere is that more apparent than on the crestfallen “Ghost.” Placid, barren and deeply potent “Ghost” is Kearney at his very best and firing on all cylinders. And from there, the rest of the album save for one hiccup is an absolute marvel. “Los Angeles” is the fourth of the autobiographical efforts and covers much of the same terrain as “Heartbreak Dreamer,” “Just Kids” and “One Black Sheep.” The chorus itself is tepid but lingering and there’s a slight chance the song may have a radio shelf life. However, the song’s commercial accessibility is far less important than the fact that Kearney is exposing his life story in a way he has not done since Nothing Left to Lose.
The very problems that plagued the album’s earlier efforts continues to hold up Just Kids in the song’s latter stages. “Miss You” is a vibe song that has few if any redeeming qualities. Moreover, the song’s placement on the album is head-scratching as it does little to bolster the album and does little to vault Kearney’s career. A person such as Kearney should in no way have filler but from start to finish that is exactly what “Miss You” is.
As if cognizant of how forgettable “Miss You” is, Kearney offers up three of the album’s strongest songs and two of the very best songs of his career. “The Conversation” is a gauzy, career-defining duet with Young Summer that dazzles from the very first seconds and lingers long after the disc ends. Ditto for the inward and gorgeous album closer “Shasta.” Sandwiched in the middle of those is the urgent and immediate “One Heart,” a song which has the swerve and zest that much of Just Kids has been missing.
If Just Kids proves anything, it is that Kearney is still crafting albums that are unrelenting in their charisma. Even with a myriad of hiccups (a first for the ultra-consistent Kearney) there are enough ear worms here to keep fans satiated until album number six. However, should Kearney release another album as ragged and inconsistent as Just Kids he will be just another singer trying far too hard to be relevant. Unfortunately, way too much of Just Kids points to that. Thankfully though, the album’s finer moments reveal he’s still got a lot left in the tank. And for that, we should be thankful.