It’s one thing to move away from your hometown. Plenty of artists—probably most of them—do that. But it’s another thing entirely when your parents leave, too. That, says singer-songwriter Mat Kearney, was what partially inspired the tenderly personal reminiscing found on his fifth album, Just Kids.
Kearney’s parents recently relocated from Oregon to Tennessee, where their 36-year-old son has carved out a solid musical niche as a Christian artist with indie crossover appeal. “It’s kind of like the death of your hometown, y’know?” Mat says. “Some of the physical roots that tied you to the place that formed you and raised you are drying up. So [Just Kids] is kind of this love letter to those forces that formed me and the places that formed me. And, on the track ‘Just Kids,’ it’s about can we go back to that place before we learned how to be hurt and not trust, and can we love each other like we were kids? Is that possible?”
Just Kids suggests that it is.
“Shasta” (named after the street Mat grew up on in Eugene, Oregon) memorializes saying good-bye to your childhood home: “Hometown reminded/Where I come from/ … One last time through the woods/In my old neighborhood/It tastes so bittersweet I can’t believe it.” Though the song’s got a melancholy feel (not to mention some memories of running away from the police before Kearney was a Christian), he also prays, “Lord, tell me You’re not done with me yet.” The song promises that even though we live in a fallen place, we’re on the road to glory.
“Heartbreak Dreamer” encourages everyone who’s ever felt out of place to keep the faith. Among the many strugglers Kearney namechecks are those longing for marriage, the overweight, the bullied and those who do seemingly menial jobs. Likewise, “Let It Rain” suggests we have to make peace with life’s stormy moments (“Just because it’s pouring down doesn’t mean we’re gonna drown”). “One Heart” tells us that even when we feel cold, broken and alone, we’re not on our own. “Moving On” embraces forgiveness and trusting God when it comes to relinquishing hurtful memories of a broken relationship. And “The Conversation” finds Kearney and guest contributor Young Summer singing about a difficult relationship that they decide is worth fighting for.
On the title track, Kearney references teen rebellion (sneaking in and out of windows, listening to Wu-Tang Clan), but later says these things were evidence that he was “running from God’s grace.” It declares that the best way to face life’s hurts is together (“I can feel it in the way we try/I can feel it in the way we fight/We’re standing side by side/Like we were just kids”).
Marital intimacy is celebrated on “Heartbeat,” without the song getting too racy (“I feel your heart beat, beat, beat/Beating right next to me/The heat, heat, heat/Got me feeling like I believe/All the things, baby, that we could be”). And Kearney clearly communicates that sex is intended only for the marriage bed when he says, “Ain’t leaning on no cliché/If you sharing my bed, then babe, you share my name.” Meanwhile, “Billion” salutes faithfulness and endurance in marriage with, “Whatever the weather, we’ll stick together forever/’Cause you’re the only one.”
“Ghost” imagines a man trying to come to terms with his loneliness and grief after his wife’s passing. We hear, “It’s like waiting for a train that’s not coming/It’s like a waterfall in my head/ … What hurts the most/Is sleeping with your ghost.” In a YouTube commentary on the song’s meaning, Kearney said, “It’s probably one of the sadder songs I’ve ever written. It’s just kind of like mourning and loss and losing someone you know.”
In an interview with themorningsun.com, Mat Kearney said of the deeply personal material on Just Kids, “I was setting out to be radically vulnerable and honest and kind of courageous in my genre-exploring. I definitely wasn’t afraid of my hip-hop influences or writing really autobiographical, personal stories. I wanted to feel like only I could write these songs, nobody else.” He added, “I’ve learned this: The frightening songs are the ones that are the most important. If the song scares you for a minute, those are the ones that usually are like, ‘Yes, this must happen.’ And there’s a lot of them on this record.”
Frightening for Mat, maybe. But not for listeners. The moving songs on Just Kids sound like the ruminations of a man coming to terms with his past with the wisdom and fondness that only time coupled with faith can provide. The result is a mature and winsome collection of stories delivered in Kearney’s melodically memorable, pop-meets-hip-hop style.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.