Six months ago I couldn’t have imagined writing an appreciative review of an album by an artist whose music is frequently described as a unique blend of folk, hip-hop, and Brit-pop (think Coldplay for the latter genre).
The Coldplay connection is ultimately responsible for this development. Despite the canonical status of U2 in my playlist, I confess to liking Coldplay’s sound enough to download a few songs. Early this year while writing at the Broad River Coffee Company across the street from Gardner-Webb University, I kept hearing a couple of songs I assumed were tracks I hadn’t yet heard from Coldplay’s latest studio release. A quick Google search for lyric fragments revealed they were actually by singer-songwriter Mat Kearney (pronounced “Carney”)—whose music, I realized, I’d heard before on Grey’s Anatomy episodes.
Kearney’s voice does sound a bit like Chris Martin’s minus the yodel-like effect, though pitched a little lower and with a hint of Bruce Hornsby. But I found Kearney’s songwriting and the perspective that informs it so much more compelling than Coldplay that soon his albums were soundtracking my weekly trips to teach ecumenical theology at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in South Carolina.
A good part of what attracts me to the music of both U2 and Mat Kearney, stylistically disparate though they are, is the eschatological framework that makes their art a Christian rendering of the world.
“Eschatology,” the division of Christian theology that deals with “last things,” isn’t only about what happens at the end. Baptist theologian James Wm. McClendon, Jr. helpfully defined eschatology much more broadly: it’s “about what lasts; it is also about what comes last, and about the history that leads from the one to the other.” Eschatology has to do with God’s goals for all creation, from creation to consummation and everything in between, as well as our participation in what God is already doing to realize these goals in a world where they are manifestly not yet fully realized.
That framework is indispensable for a full appreciation of Kearney’s music. By nurture and owned conviction, it’s the set of lenses through which he’s been reading the world since he began making music with his roommate’s guitar while majoring in English literature at California State University, Chico on a soccer scholarship. While he credits his personal embrace of Christian faith to a serious read of the Bible in a religious studies course, Kearney is the son of a pastor: his mother Shannon Kearney was founding pastor of SouthHills Church in Eugene, Oregon and continues to serve as associate pastor there.
Kearney’s songs rarely invoke the Christian framework they presuppose with direct specificity. In an interview published a few months before the release of his first major label album he explained, “My faith is a part of who I am and the music I make. But it has to exist within the world that does not necessarily believe what I believe.” In keeping with Emily Dickinson’s admonition, Kearney tells truth in his music, but tells it slant.
For those who have ears to hear, Kearney tells the truth of Christian eschatology on his current album Young Love (2011), his third major label release. Despite what the title may suggest, it’s not a collection of maudlin love ballads. Young Love is about the eschatology of relationships.
Its ten tracks occupy the theological space of the tension between the “already” and the “not yet” of those relationships—the sheer exhilaration of meeting, falling in love with, and pursuing the person with whom you want to spend the rest of your life (“Hey Mama,” “She Got the Honey,” “Young and Dumb and in Love”), coupled with the inevitable conflict and struggle involved in continuing the relationship toward its goal (“Ships in the Night,” “Sooner or Later”), lived out in a world in which we all have our “backs against the wall” (an image invoked with precisely that wording in no less than three songs—“Count on Me,” “Sooner or Later,” and “Down”).
On this album Kearney deals honestly with the “not yet” of relationships in a way that sets his music apart from the overly realized eschatology of the CCM industry’s typical products, which tend to emphasize the present reality of “the power of his resurrection” with little place for “the sharing of his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). “Sooner or Later” gets it right: “We’re all waiting on a dream that’s hard to own…Trying to feel the high without the low.”
Without losing the dream that what lasts and comes last can yet be experienced in the history that leads from the one to the other, Young Love names the low that belongs to this history: a marital spat and a wife’s fear that it portends the same eventual outcome as her parents’ dissolved marriage, a friend who keeps “Chasing the Light” but hasn’t yet found it, a lonely man who experiences redemption only at the point of preparations to end his life, a father-to-be who learns his house is headed for foreclosure, a teenage girl’s depressed existence in a broken home, an endless coffee shop parade of the faces of “falling love,” and a father’s struggles with the legacy of his relationship with his own father.
In the midst of these stories of lives longing for wholeness, “Hallelujah”—among the more direct lyrical allusions on the album to the biblical story of redemption—is transformed from a straightforward exhortation to praise God into a desperate embrace of God at the end of one’s rope. One instance is in “Learning to Love Again,” a gem of a song that re-narrates a life thought meaningless as the real self of God’s creative and re-creative work.
The other is in “Down,” which features a chorus that’s downright psalm-like in its questioning of whether the divine can “hear when we call, there where we fall, standing our backs against the wall”—questions answered in a song four tracks prior. “Count on Me,” ostensibly expressing a parent’s love for a child, is theological double entendre: “when your number’s called, back’s against the wall, pick you up when you call, be there where you fall…you can count on me.” Just in case anyone missed the connection, the set lists of Kearney’s concerts in support of the album have juxtaposed the two songs.
The narrative particularity of the history that leads from what lasts to what comes last is what Kearney does especially well. The essential stuff of Christian faith and faithfulness is the divine story that in Christ embraces the human story as well, giving us the story that helps us re-narrate our own stories and the world in which we live them out—which is another way of saying it’s all about eschatology. Like Augustine’s Confessions in which the ancient Bishop of Hippo re-narrated his own story in light of the story of God disclosed in Christ, Kearney’s music is almost always either autobiographical or rooted in the biographies of people he knows, the untidy details narrated within the framework of Christian eschatology.
“Ships in the Night,” for example, was sketched out on a plane flight after an argument between Kearney and his wife, model Annie Sims (who’s also the inspiration of the three songs about the exhilaration of young love). The album’s final track “Rochester” is the story of Mat’s father Michael Kearney and the gracious transformation of his life occasioned by a revelatory interaction with Mat’s older brother Benjamin.
These and other stories find their place in God’s story by virtue of their relation to the central experience and practice of the Christian story and its eschatological framework. In the words of “Down,” “we all need forgiveness”—the experience of receiving God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of others, and the practice of granting in turn to others the forgiveness we’ve received.
Young Love is music for those who know the wonder of young love yet feel “so far from so close,” whose “singing Hallelujah” comes when they’re “looking down the barrel,” who live “where pain and love bleed into one.” It’s for people who embrace what lasts and comes last but live fully in the history that leads from the one to the other, a history that includes both the pain of the present evil age and the hope of the age to come.
I’m looking forward to discovering how this framework informs Kearney’s next project, on which he’s reportedly been working during a break in his touring schedule. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy seeing his show when he comes to Charlotte as the opening act for Train on July 26—along with our six-year-old son Timothy the budding music critic, who recently made the pronouncement “Mat Kearney is awesome,” constantly listens to Kearney’s songs on his Kindle Fire, and really, really hopes that he will sing “Count on Me” in Charlotte.
And by the way—the unique blend of folk, hip-hop, and Brit-pop thing works for me, after all.