“Just Kids” Isn’t Alright

Courtesy of UMG Records
Courtesy of UMG Records

Singer-songwriter Mat Kearney’s fifth album, “Just Kids,” is a sentimental evocation of childhood and youth. Although the tracks on the LP are all well-produced and masterfully layered, they suffer from being far too formulaic, with the musical arc similar in almost each song, which feels awkward on an album so production-heavy. Moreover, the lyrics feel contrived, and the desperate attempt to be genuine comes off as melodramatic.

“Heartbreak Dreamer,” the opening track, is perhaps the most accomplished song on the entire album. It begins with an eerily distorted sample of a generic “la la la” that gets placed in the background once Kearney begins reminiscing about his childhood. Kearney’s lyrics, coupled with the bizarre effect of the sample, creates a uniquely dissonant feeling. However, the lyrical aspect of the song devolves halfway through into a spoken word poem originally written by Anis Mojgani. Although the inclusion of the spoken word by Mojgani (“For the schoolyard wimps, and the bullies who tormented them / shake the dust”) is fine spoken word independently, it feels pretentious and increases the feeling of affectation that the album exudes.

While “Just Kids” isn’t awful and has plenty of good moments, its attempt to be genuine through its vulnerability comes across as overly sentimental. Lyrically, the album feels contrived. For example, the chorus from the track, “Moving on,” which catalogues a breakup in the narrator’s life, goes, “life is too short to stay where we are” — oh my, how profound. To be fair, “Moving on” is very catchy. The song begins with a simple 808 beat and vocals, and progresses to a complex arrangement of percussions, synth sounds and layered vocals. This arrangement reaches its apex with an uptempo chorus sung in a wonderful falsetto by Kearney, which deftly circumvents the effect of the stilted lyrics.

Essentially, the problem boils down to this: Kearney’s desire to be genuine is undermined by how formulaic the album feels. Each song has such a similar musical arc that it can be difficult at times to tell the songs apart. The formula: slow beginning, with Kearney’s vocals entering about 15-20 seconds in, backed by light synth beats and a live instrument (guitar or piano). When the chorus comes around, the instruments stop and the synth beats crash down right where the chorus starts. This heavy-handed formula is there in some incarnation on virtually every song. Moreover, it is impossible to simultaneously be sincere and this formulaic.

The only track that departs from this structure is “The Conversation,” featuring Young Summer. The conversation is a duet with vocals by both singers set to acoustic guitar with an understated piano riff in the background. This song is the simplest on “Just Kids,” with Summer and Kearney trading verses. Overall, this track seems quite out of place on the album, with a strong folk vibe on an otherwise electro-pop album.

While the album has some catchy melodies and is overall an excellently produced record, “Just Kids” is a weak album. Hearing the same brand of emotional shallowness and formulaic songwriting is just tiring.

Rating: 2 stars

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