Review of Mat Kearney’s City of Black and White

My plan is to write my thoughts as I listen to each song. There seems to be no other way to really justify doing this review for such a long-awaited album (for me, anyway) and from one of my favorite artist, if not my top artist, which is saying a lot for someone like me who listen to way too much music.

I’m rating each song on a scale of 1 – 10. I wish I’d thought to do this at first listen, but maybe it will be better now that I’ve heard it a few times and can look for the layers. Alas, we shall see what comes out. FYI, I have the deluxe edition, which I pre-ordered two weeks ago, but I think it’s still available on itunes.

1. All I Have

This song seems primed for radio play. It’s a nice and easy arrangement, very radio-friendly, with his pop vocals in full-effect. Interestingly enough, though, the song seems “happy” but a lot of the lyrics are sad. “Tired of the same song everyone’s singing/I’d rather be lost with you instead.” While most of the lyrics are typical for him, this style of song is not. I’m on the fence. I like it, I don’t love it. But I definitely don’t hate it.

Rating: 8

2. Fire and Rain

Hmm… stylistically also very different for him. Also very radio-friendly, but not very much edge, which is what I’m used to. This sounds like a song that would be great on a movie soundtrack, which is not a bad thing at all. But different for him.

Do you ever think about me/Do you ever call my name/Ask me now I’ll give you the reasons/My love will not fade/Through the fire and rain

Rating: 8.25

3. Closer To Love

This single was released back in April and I’ve listened to it many, many times. (It’s also my new cell phone ring…) I really love this song. This is the closest to the old (not safe) Mat I’ve heard so far on the record. It’s really beautiful with a touch of edginess.

For all the tears you’ve cried/You’ve been way too strong now for all your life/I’m gonna get there soon/You’re gonna be there too.

I love the beat in this song, and I love the piano. Gorgeous.
Rating: 9

4. Here We Go

Oh, I really love this song. Really and truly. This man has had his heart broken, and by the same woman, several times. These kind of lyrics aren’t born out of anything but heartbreak.

Bitter is the kiss that says goodbye/I can hear it in your voice/I can see it in your eyes…’Cause we’ve been this low and we’ve been around this bend/I don’t to lose you all over again/We sing/”Oh, love, it’s easy if you don’t try to please me/If you don’t want to see me any more”/We sing out/Oh, oh/Here we go again/I know how I lost a friend

Wow. That’s just painful. But there’s a lot of truth in it, which is why I love it.

Rating: 9.5

5. Lifeline

My first couple of listens to this song had me unsure of whether I liked it or not. Something about the lyrics seems a bit contrived to me. But, things that are contrived are also usually true. They are just over-done. Mat’s first two albums were so unique, especially musically. We aren’t getting too much musical innovation here, and the lyrics are a bit over-used, this is still a thoughtful song.

The world is too big to never ask why/The answers don’t fall straight out of the sky/I’m fighting to live and feel alive/But I can’t feel a thing without you by my side/Send me out a lifeline

Rating: 7.25

6. New York To California

The beginning of this sounds just like “Won’t Back Down” from his second album. There is a glimmer of Mat’s story-telling here, but it’s reeled in a bit.

I don’t want to live another day without you/You woke up and said baby I, had one of those dreams again/The rain came down and I lost you in the wind…If you find your self lost out in this world/Then I’ll find a way to get back to your side

Again, so sad. There’s a touch of hope here, like the relationship might actually be beginning and that’s why he will go from New to California for her. A nice song; not a terribly memorable one for me.

Rating: 7.5

7. Runaway Car

This is another song where the music seems happier than what he is trying to say with the lyrics.

Stop this runaway car/Not that gone and we’re not that far/If it left you there then I left it all behind/’Cause all I’m feeling now/Is the weight of the world/bearing down/I don’t have answers to any of my questions anymore

This song is really about regret, and it’s in a major key instead of a minor, and has happy guitar strumming throughout. I think he’s probably trying to convey the feeling of runaway emotions, because the song is about him recognizing a mistake the day after he made it – he made the choice to walk away from someone he loved. I think the song could be a touch better if he’d taken the key down a 1/2 step.

Rating: 7

8. Never Be Ready

This might be the best song on the album. This is a time where the lyrics and the music match quite well – because it’s neither a happy or sad song. It’s hopeful, which can go either way if we are honest with ourselves.

Come on and lay down these arms /All our best defenses /We’re taking our chances here on the run/The fear is an anchor /Time is a stranger/Love isn’t borrowed /We aren’t promised tomorrow/We’ll never be ready if we keep waiting /For the perfect time to come/Hold me steady, we’ll never be ready /When we don’t know, though we can’t see /Just walk on down this road with me /Hold me steady, we’ll never be ready

Anyone who’s been hurt is afraid of letting down defenses and letting someone really love them understand this song. In a sense, we’ll never be ready to take that leap because of how the fear grounds us, preventing us from taking that leap. He’s asking her, in the lyrics, to hold him steady (he’s acknowledging his own fear) and to know that they’ll never feel ready. So they owe it to themselves to just try.

Oh? And the bridge on this one rocks.

Rating: 10

9. Annie

Here’s the story of what inspired the song:

“I wrote that on in the back seat of a van headed away from a dirty show in Indianapolis. I had met this girl named Annie who told me a story about how she had to either leave her hometown or get swallowed by it. Leaving is hard when you are misunderstood, especially by your family.”

This is a song about courage, and Mat does something really interesting with this. This song could have sounded really sad. He could have made it about being swallowed by the small town. But instead it’s as if he wrote the song to give her encouragement to go, to change.

Cause Annie’s got to get out/Before she never can/Holding the line from the back of the car/Miles and miles from where you are/Maybe the hardest things are the dreams that we’ve been given/And you scream and you sing and you shout/There one way in and there’s one way out/Help me to find my way back down

Rating: 9

10. Straight Away

Mat tweeted a link to this song a day or two before the album release, so I was able to listen to it several times before the rest of the songs… and I must say, it gets better each time you listen to it. I adore this song. Never Be Ready is really good, but I like this one better. Because these are the kind of lyrics that every girl wants to hear from a man who loves her.

If I was wrong would you show me/Where all that I lost can be found?/Cause you can shoot me straight/straight to the heart/ ‘Cause you already have it/ Say what you want to say/We’re coming out of the grey/What goes around now/Is coming back down today/You can shoot my straight away

Ratig: 10

11. On And On

This song – the strumming, the mood – sounds a lot like Nothing Left to Loose, which is my favorite song from his second album.

On and on and on we pray/That we can break into a brighter day/Nothing worth anything ever goes down easy/On and on and on we go/I don’t understand this winding road/Nothing worth anything ever goes down easy/And we’ll keep on keep on climbing/On down this narrow line/So we can see the other side

What I appreciate about this song so much is how there is a touch of reality in the love story. He loves her, she wants to run, and he’s challenging her with some really tough questions. And then he says that he doesn’t understand why things get tough, but that he’s willing to keep trying. If only we all had attitudes like that…

Rating: 9.5

12. City Of Black & White

I love the entire composition of this song. The structure, the lyrics, the additional of the electric guitar at the end of the chorus… it’s so well-done. Really, the structure is near-perfect.

I don’t want to wait until tomorrow/To tell you how I’d feel the rest of my life/You don’t want a waste another minute to realize/Walking on the dark side of the evening/maybe it is you that opened my eyes/Burning like a fire on the water/The city of black and white

He wrote this song quite a while ago (the earliest I heard about was back in 2007) so that could be the reason for it’s great structure. I also love how he plays with colors in the song especially the opening stanza: “This whole city’s black and white/Tell me what is your color./Could it be the same as mine?/Faded greens and blue street lights”

Rating: 10

13. Everyone I Know (Bonus Track)

Musically, this is a little different for Mat, opening with just an electric guitar. And it pretty much stays that way the whole time. It’s very stripped down.

And I can hardly find the means for all the words I mean to speak/But still this fire inside of me seems too much for me alone to keep/Now the writing’s on the wall for God in Krylon cans/Will you send a prayer for me?/Will you help me to stay?/ Because I know what’s it’s like/’Cause everyone that I know and every place that I go/Every story that I’m told, /It’s love, it’s love, it’s love /That we’re looking for

There’s huge sense of longing in his voice here that’s heart-breaking. Beautiful.

Rating: 9

14. Here We Go (Acoustic Version, Bonus Track)

The opening of this is super slow, not at all like the plugged-in version. But once he hits the chorus, the temp picks up and the guitar comes in. I like that he did it this way. I can only hope when Mat comes to St. Louis in July that it will be an unplugged concert, because he’s really at his best this way. Especially with this song.

Rating: 10

15. All I Have (Acoustic Version Bonus Track)

A video came with this for the deluxe version, which is fun to have. Mat actually tunes his guitar at the beginning… and they use a steel guitar in this, which sounds great.

This isn’t a good as his acoustic version of Here We Go, but it’s still nice. Part of it is that I just like Here We Go better.

Rating: 8

All in all, I really love this album. I miss some of Mat’s great story-telling, and I miss the textures to his music (the hip-hop urban beats). There are some beautiful layers to his song craftsmanship overall – with music and lyrics playing well off of each other. Mat’s voice in undeniable, and his lyrics are still beautiful and thoughtful. He had a lot to live up to, and since this was three years in the making, my hopes were pretty high.

The best description I’ve heard of Mat’s voice is this: “He could sing about pipe bombs and exploding cars and there’d still be a placidity and warmness to his tone that would soothe and soften.” (Gregory Robson, from For me? Mat’s voice just feels like home.

This album is worth getting. I suspect, that just like his last album, it will help me write my own story, and the songs in it will remind me of what I’ll experience in the next year. His music has a history of doing that for me.

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