86. Nothing Left to Lose – Mat Kearney
NOTHING LEFT TO LOSE (2006)
The best songwriter to come out of CCM in the past decade made his debut in 2004, but it would be his sophomore release, “Nothing Left to Lose,” that made him a household name. Well, if not a household name, there are at least several million household that have heard his music with it being featured on a regular basis on television programs like Grey’s Anatomy and NCIS.
The debut featured a more aggressive, electric and eclectic sound with more of a hip-hop influence than who he really is as an artist. That is why i have heard him mention that the album spotlighted here is his debut album. Nipping at the heels of Gold certification, the album possessed some brilliant songs and moving musical expressions. It is really a collection of beautiful poems expressed in wonderfully crafted pop songs.
Kearney employs a unique talking (NOT rapping) verse structure and singing choruses. Not to be compared to or confused with Lou Reed, the comparison works for the similar verse/chorus structure. Kearney possesses a strong sense of melody and an unbelievable emotional tug on some very slow and lengthy songs. The spoken word verse is closer to Dylan at times but a bit more “on key.”
Though produced and promoted by a Christian label, no artists has made as such an impact on the mainstream radio and television world in the past decade as Kearney. Thoughtful and creative, the album was released two separate times with the latter release (2007) containing a song penned expressly for Grey Anatomy (Breathe In, Breath Out) and was used extensively on the program and on the commercials promoting the show.
The album would contain one monster hit, the title track, and a few others that made some dents on itunes and on Billboard. That one hit, though, is incredibly familiar to nearly anyone that hears it. One more than one occasion I have mentioned Kearny to friends who said they were unfamiliar with his music. Just humming the hook of the chorus will elicit responses of, “I love that song…who does it again?”
The album does contain several songs that were on his debut, but the vast majority possess a drastically different version of the song and, in some cases, sound like totally different songs.
“Undeniable” kicks off the album with a great and unforgettable groove and big hook chorus. This song best displays the interplay between the verse and chorus structure and actually causes the listener to actually not notice the use of the spoken word verses because of the strong melody. The song is a reflection on Kearney’s youth and the dark, grey days of life in school are juxtaposed against the undeniable brilliance of his truest love.
The aforementioned title track follows and is one of the very few songs on the album in which the choruses could be seen as “sung.” Like most of Kearney’s compositions this is very autobiographical. He tends to speak in the first person and relates every song to his own experience. Here he traces his move from Oregon to Nashville to begin his life in the music business and the abandon needed to follow ones dreams. All the while there is a longing for the safety and security of “home,” but also a realization someone and something greater is directing his steps.
Love is dangerous and uncomfortable. Losing it or not having it is even more precarious. So it is with “Crashing Down,” a “heavier” song that features some of the best hooks on the album. There are even moments when I swear it’s Jason martin on guitar with all the swirling and whirling going on.
A personal favorite is “Girl America.” Here is a song so brutally honest about this great land that I can expect it to be co-opted by both the left and the right. His best “rapping” is on this song as he expresses a true love and appreciation for his country and the pain as it appears to be falling from its foundations.
“In the Middle” was kept from being a hit only because of the Kearney’s penchant for the spoken word and radios reluctance to embracing it. The chorus of this ballad is just too damn good. It’s a haunting and beautiful melody.
I really don’t know if the “her” in “Can’t Break her Fall” is an actual person or representative of something else entirely as the images change throughout the verse structure. But the beautiful moving images of girl broken by something that needs love and support but will not accept it. My personal reflection is one of a young girl addicted to drugs, alcohol or sex and any intervention is fruitless as long as she does not admit her need.
The most haunting song on the album is “What’s a Boy to Do.” The story of a fatherless child in need of a father;’s love and acceptance. the story is too real and painful. Kearney’s ability to express that emotion in the spoken word/half-sung style is staggering. Brilliant and utterly moving.
Just when you think the spoken word technique will grow tiring “Wait” comes along with such a beautiful sung chorus and great instrumentation.
“Bullet” appeared on the actual debut album two years previous and this version is virtually the same, and for good reason. the song is fantastic! The love, expressed from the point of God or a lover expresses the idea that there is no greater love than one who would lay down his life for a friend.
“All I Need” is one of the most beautiful songs of the past decade. Simply produced with very stark and limited instrumentation, the song tells the story of two close friends whose lives were turned upside-down as a result of Katrina. The combination of loss and hopelessness mixed with love and hope is simply moving.
“Renaissance” is written from the point of view of a survivor of a terrible crash. If given a second chance at life how would you respond? Would you love more, care more, live more? These are the questions posed here in the chorus while the verse relives the horrible accident in vivid and stunning words and images.
The best of the ballads is the brilliant, “Where Do We Go From Here.” the melody sticks with you long after the song fades and was used on countless TV shows including Scrubs, Kyle XY and Grey’s Anatomy. The song leaves a melancholy feeling deep in the soul of the listener as it nearly disappears with just Kearney’s whispering vocals and acoustic guitar and mandolin before coming back with a humming chorus that reverberates.
The original release closes with “Won’t back Down.” A piano driven song with more of sung verse structure. The song is a reflection of Kearney’s fight to keep his feet squarely planted on solid ground. One of the more blatantly spiritually charged songs on the album, it closes with an ethereal sounding “Halllelujah” as it fades.
The re-release of the album featured a song written for Grey’s Anatomy called “Breathe In, Breath Out.” One assume the song was an attempt to recharge the albums sales and co-promote with the popular television program. The song only made a dent on the charts, but it did give a hint as to the direction Kearney would follow on his follow-up release. Less spoken word and more straight vocals.
A brilliant songwriter with hopefully a very long career ahead of him, Kearney was a revelation in CCM in a decade really lacking in great mainstream released artists.