As his sixth studio album, Just Kids finds Mat Kearney continuing to straddle the line of being a pop-inclined musician who still strives for the lyrical depth and intimacy of a singer-songwriter. This dichotomy actually works for the most part, and the end result is an album that as a whole is both more musically creative and lyrically sincere than his last release, Young Love.
While the acoustic guitar-strumming, quasi-rapping Mat Kearney of Bullet and Nothing Left to Lose is mostly gone, Just Kids is also not as blatantly pop-oriented as was Young Love. There are still several upbeat, radio-friendly tracks, but the production is more eclectic and there are notably fewer hand-clap rhythm sections. In fact, along with Kearney's typically heartfelt lyrics about his past and his romantic relationships, the production on Just Kids is one of the album's best attributes. For example, "Billion" could have been a fairly generic romantic pop track, but it is set apart by the fun world music feel of the production. This adventurous producing approach is visible on several other songs, including the title track, "One Heart," and "Heartbeat."
Lyrically, Kearney devotes significant time to subjects he's previously addressed on prior releases. He sings a lot about both successful ("Heartbeat" and "Billion") and unsuccessful ("Moving On" and "Ghosts") relationships, as well as his own history both as a child and as a performer ("One Black Sheep" and "Los Angeles"). Kearney definitely seems to have found a comfortable groove in terms of subject matter from album to album, and Just Kids doesn't branch out much from that. But the sincerity and lyrical creativity with which he approaches these topics keep the end result from seeming stale.
The biggest weakness of Just Kids is that it's heavily front-loaded in terms of energy. After "One Black Sheep," the second half of the album is generally much more low-key, which makes the album as a whole feel off-balance. Additionally, one of the few upbeat tracks in the latter half, "Los Angeles," is not particularly good, feeling like it has all the elements of a good Mat Kearney pop song but somehow managing to be less than the sum of its parts. The only other noticeably weak song is the title track, which attempts to strike a slow-burn tempo but ends up being more "slow" than "burn."
But any small criticism of individual songs pale in comparison to the quality of the album as a whole. Just Kids is by turns both fun and heartfelt, and it showcases an artist who continues to evolve his sound in new directions and who keeps a fun pop sensibility intact without simply pandering to the radio. Lyrical depth, clever production, and Kearney's impeccable sense of melody and hook all combine to make Just Kids an excellent example of a pop album done the right way, and it may be Kearney's best work since he first burst onto the scene.- Review date: 2/21/15, written by Timothy Estabrooks of Jesusfreakhideout.com
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