Music at Mars Hill: Mat Kearney and the Struggle for Identity

Music at Mars Hill is a weekly column by Luke Larsen that seeks to find God amidst the newest trends in both mainstream music and independent music.

Mat Kearney was born and raised in Eugene Oregon, which happens to be where I went to for college. In fact, when I began to become familiar with various Christian communities in Eugene, I would hear more and more about Mat Kearney and how his mother was a pastor at a church nearby and he even played solo shows in the basement of the college house I lived at. Because of this, there was always a strong element of familiarity with his early music, which blended acoustic pop/rock with spoken word and rap.

However, with City of Black & White, the followup to his breakout album, Kearney made clear movements toward a more generic pop style that left many of his early fans a bit disappointed. What for marketers and industry experts was a calculated move toward a direct embrace of mainstream pop, was a turn from his distinct style of spoken word narratives and unique songwriting. Instead, City of Black & White was a very generic pop record that was made up of a host of single-ready hits and teenage love songs.

Young Love, Kearney’s newest album, is a fun and light-hearted album that embraces hip-hop and other genres in very safe and comfortable ways. Fans will be happy to hear lip-service paid to Kearney’s earlier music in “Ships in the Night”, while the radio-friendly choruses and hip hop beats of songs like “Hey Mama” and “Chasing the Light” are sure to win over new fans. However, what worries me about Young Love, however, is that Kearney’s appetite for narrative storytelling and unique take on spirituality seem to be all but absent in his newest release. Don’t get me wrong: that doesn’t make Young Love a necessarily bad pop album at all. In fact, there are definitely songs here that I really enjoyed (“Ships in the Night” in particular). I’m always down with artists making significant changes to their style and evolving their sound. However, there’s a distinct difference between a sharpening of identity and an assimilation of identity.

The story of the ambitious young singer-songwriter getting strung up in the grasps of major record labels and fame is one that nearly all of our favorite artists have encountered. Whether its John Mayor or Death Cab for Cutie or Modest Mouse, every artist that gets to the point of mainstream success has to at some point deal with an identity crisis. How they deal with that crisis, though, determines whether they will continue to be true to themselves or become just another voice on the radio.

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  • Blake

    While I generally agree with you here, I would say that the track “Down” on the album has spiritual aspects. Overall though, I do wish for Mat to return to his earlier form.