Release Date: May 21st 2021
Reviewed by: Joshua Andre
Mat Kearney– January Flower (Amazon mp3/iTunes)
- Can’t Look Back
- Grand Canyon
- They Don’t Know
- Anywhere With You
- Say It Now
- Stuck In The Moment
- I Don’t Really Care
- Running In Circles
- Something Beautiful
Previously signed to Republic Records and Inpop Records (although now an independent artist); singer/songwriter and pop artist Mat Kearney is one of the most underrated yet also one of the most heartfelt and hopeful artists I’ve heard recently. Though myself not being an avid fan of Mat’s, 2015’s Just Kids was an album that I thoroughly enjoyed (I reviewed the album here!); and at the time I promised to dive deep into the rest of Mat’s discography. However now here we are 6 years later, and I still haven’t had ‘time’ or maybe the inkling, to even check out Mat’s music. it’s not that his music isn’t good… it’s just that I’ve been impacted and inspired by other artists who are a lot more hard-hitting and resonating. CRAZYTALK in 2018 was an album that I was meaning to check out and review… but here we are 3 years later, and I still haven’t heard any of the songs in full. Is it just me or am I just wanting to like an artist that doesn’t click with me on some level for some reason (even though objectively Mat is someone who I should be finding impacting and inspiring personally!)? Well I guess there’s plenty of time for me to be philosophical however, with Mat just releasing a new album this past week, called January Flower. And now… I’m being intentional- as we are met with one of the most thought-provoking, honest, confronting and comforting albums we’ve heard this year.
Mat isn’t your average household name, but as with anything this year, COVID-19 has decimated any semblance of normalcy and has made the term popularity somewhat relative. When you as an artist have no live shows to go to, how do you rebrand yourself for the foreseeable future? Well I guess you plough through with recording studio albums- and Mat has done just that, as January Flower is a positive ray of sunshine and a glimmer of hope in a world full of uncertainty. Quality-wise, this release is as good as any this year; and has reminded us all that even music veterans can compete in a cutthroat business like this. According to American Songwriter, in 2019, Mat and childhood friend Marshall Roeman, a painter, and songwriter Eli Teplin, packed up recording gear and headed out into the desolate wonder of Joshua Tree. His goal for the two-week trek was to rid himself of distraction and record a full studio album. But, as they arrived, record rainfall swept the road they drove in on into a river. The house they rented was solar-powered, so by the light of a wood-burning stove, Kearney placed words between strums of his acoustic guitar. They were able to write five songs for his upcoming collection. But more importantly, Kearney was reminded of his roots. I don’t think I would be able to brave the elements and be in a large space devoid of technology for an extended period of time- I guess I am a city person through and through. Yet for Mat having the trek and roughing it out in the ‘wilderness’ as the basis for January Flower, we are met with an album full of poignancy, reflection, heart and lament. Thus, this isn’t your usual ‘pop’ album, even though the music is poppy. There’s an air of melancholy here, and self-awareness of the fragility of life. Be it serendipitous or destiny or whatever you want to call it- I think it’s fitting that January Flower release now, and not any other time in history.
Opener “Powerless” is a harsh reality check, as Mat reiterates against a strong acoustic guitar backdrop that we as a human race are powerless and no match for nature and the unexpected situations that come our way. With Mat diving deep lyrically here and with the song inspired by the harsh conditions he found on his trek in 2019; we are met with an Ecclesiastes type track that speaks about the fragility of life in general. Not really something you can expect from a pop album opener, Mat delivers a thought-provoking, powerful anthem that brings forth humility, as we submit to our Maker and Father, and realise that His ways are higher than our own. “Can’t Look Back”, another laid back acoustic guitar prominent laid back melody, dives deep into an experience Mat had in Mexico in his younger years, where he had a theological discussion and deep spiritual conversation with someone who concluded that you can’t move forward in life if you’re looking back; with the song being lyrically simple in that we need to just be present in the moment than looking over our shoulder all the time. While the honest and hard-hitting “Grand Canyon” speaks about the distance one feels from someone else being so wide like the Grand Canyon- and us realising that we need to be in relationship with people in order to survive, be alive and to thrive.
Sometimes in Nashville, you schedule these writing appointments and you’re like, ‘Hey, let’s get to know each other, we’ll write a song.’ Just to form a relationship, really, and maybe you get a good song out of it. I was pretty tired, and this guy named Rob from a band called Timeflies showed up. He sat on my piano and I was like, ‘Dude, I got nothing.’ I was watching TV the night before, the show This Is Us. There’s a character who they called Pontiac and made fun of her, because she lived in her mom’s Pontiac. She was homeless. I was googling what Pontiac meant, the company. And I was like, ‘Oh, they’ve gone out of business.’ This car company we’ve all heard of and no longer exists. I thought it was an interesting parallel about these things that were strong ingredients in our lives that are no longer there.
“Pontiac”, a nostalgic track that speaks about the good things in Mat’s life when he was younger, is about trying to get back to a time period and to a place in your life that is no longer there, and a melody whereby Mat also reconciles his longing for the past with the realisation that we need to embrace and live in the present while anticipating the future in order to live a life that is satisfying and filled with contentment; while “They Don’t Know” is sung directly to the haters and reminding them that just because you only see one part of a person’s life on the internet- the part they’re letting you see, these people could have a whole other life or feelings you don’t know about… and that’s ok. “Anywhere With You”, a romantic love song whereby Mat reiterates that he’d go anywhere with his wife and that travelling to exotic places but being alone isn’t something that appeals to him at all, is extremely catchy and poppy. Even though the message is simplistic, it’s one of those songs that worms its way into your heart- and is a guilty pleasure of mine. “Say It Now”, another vulnerable track, reminds us that we need to say the things we want to now rather than later, because we don’t know how much time we have left, and speaks specifically about a tense relationship that is on the edge of reconciliation or total breakdown- the track encourages us to mend broken fences, and reminds us to be active in the relationships or not-relationships we want to fix or cultivate.
“Stuck In The Moment”, a reflective and contemplative ballad, has Mat singing through the lens of a broken romantic relationship, and is about a conflict he had with someone who wronged him- and is a reminder that even though a relationship is gone, you can still miss it and miss the act of being in union with a friend or romantic partner. As Mat delves deep into the track and reminds us of the fact that being ‘stuck’ is perfectly natural, we are also reminded that healing from a break up takes time- and can manifest itself in very different ways. “I Don’t Really Care”, a piano-pop danceable tune, is one of the most radio friendly songs on the album- as Mat eloquently relays to us that he doesn’t care about radio sales and about social media (but inwardly he kinda does); and the song is about the tension you feel with the things you shouldn’t feel as deeply about but you do. “Running In Circles”, a toe-tapping pop melody inspired by the Black Lives Matter Movement, is about how people are in the daily grind swept up by politics and hence are running in circles trying to make a difference but in the end aren’t going anywhere- it’s a song borne out of Mat’s frustrations of not much of anything happening- and makes us think about the bigger and deeper issues more often.
‘Boulder’ was a song I wrote the day after this coffee shop in our neighborhood closed. I would bring my older daughter Olive there every morning. I would get up in the morning at about 7:00 and take her out of the house so my wife could go back to sleep and take a nap. We’d hang out with our neighborhood and our community. And when they closed it, it was this emotional moment, because it had represented this place that I had become a dad for the first time, too. It also represents the passage of time and being in Nashville. My daughter is no longer a baby. She’s walking, and now she’s a toddler and this boulder that’s rolling. You can’t stop the boulder when it starts. It’s really written about that journey and that season of my life.
“Boulder”, a contemplative piano ballad, speaks about the passage of time and how it keeps on travelling and never stops- with the song also allowing us to be free and to live in the moment and cherish those around us like our lives depended on it; while the penultimate track “Blame” is a track whereby Mat apologises to the people in his life that he has wronged- no doubt the track will being a lot of healing and comfort to all who listen, and also to those who will take Mat’s advice and use it as a catalyst to say sorry to people with whom they need forgiveness from. January Flower then ends with the pseudo title track “Something Beautiful”, dedicated to his daughter who was born in January, and speaks about the fragility and sanctity of life- similar in theme to the album opener.
It’s time for me to listen to some Mat Kearney albums I reckon! Though apprehensive at the beginning, as I knew that Mat was a mainstream artist (and now that preconception of Christian music being better than mainstream has been turned on its head because of the blog series that I now am in the middle of writing and am now realising has been a factor in removing some of the assumptions about music that I might have had!); I soldiered on back in 2015, and found some gems and treasures in unexpected places. To tell you the truth, I forgot about Mat and his music in the next 5 years, but now I’ve come to realise that Mat truly is a gifted singer and songwriter, and in a number of tracks in his discography; he alludes to a part of his walk with God, without referring to God or Jesus by name, and that is quite clever given that his ministry is to ‘evangelise’ and share his story with the wider community, not just to Christians. Sort of like what needtobreathe, Switchfoot, Skillet and Owl City are doing; Mat gives us albums full of heart, soul and passion, and double meanings in almost every song. And yes if you’re not a fan of Mat’s, then January Flower is the perfect place to start. Even if you are a fan of Mat’s then January Flower is still a great place to continue. Well worth the listen, you could not go wrong with Mat’s work, and this album is sure to bring a smile to your face when you listen!
3 songs to listen to: Pontiac, Anywhere With You, Boulder
RIYL: for KING & COUNTRY, Tenth Avenue North, OneRepublic, U2, Switchfoot, Needtobreathe, Hawk Nelson