Always Near Pros:
- Kevin’s first best-of album in 12 years – after 3 more studio albums – and first with a “theme”
- All 9 studio albums (except for Enchanted Piano and Christmas) represented
- Certain favorites were included
Always Near Cons:
- No new songs, rearrangements, or rare tracks – not even “The Moon Represents My Heart” or “Because I Love You”
- 14 tracks only leads to a little less than 64 minutes (a little shorter than More Than Words) – potential for 2-3 more jewels
- Other certain favorites were not included
- Listening experience could still be smoother especially given the presence of a theme
If there was to be a Beethoven of the modern era, I’d say it would be Kevin Kern (Yiruma is more Mozart, but that’s not the point). The master of light, instrumental piano, Kevin has a talent for, as Real Music President Terrence Yallop says (paraphrased by yours truly), audio painting – give him an image and he can turn it into a lovely melody that will really evoke emotions related to that image. His music has taken us on a stroll through an enchanted garden, a soar through the deep skies, and even a healing trek through nature complete with a visualization guide (2003’s The Winding Path). It is only fitting that the most intimate, the most exquisite, pieces be brought together and commemorated in a new Real Music release – which we see in 2014’s Always Near – A Romantic Collection.
This is not Kevin Kern’s first compilation album. 2002 saw the release of More Than Words (my review here); at almost the same time, Japan released Through Your Eyes (which I liked more), which included the two new songs from More Than Words but a different selection of old songs. Twelve years and five albums later (three studio albums, a Christmas album, and an album of re-recordings), Real Music decided it was ripe for another Kevin Kern collection, and so present us with Always Near.
This compilation is an entirely different organism from More Than Words and Through Your Eyes, however. The subtitle of More Than Words is The Best of Kevin Kern, while Through Your Eyes’s is Kevin Kern Collection. These are standard nomenclatures for compilation albums by artists who are not necessarily known for hit singles. This album, however, takes on a different tone: its full name is Always Near – A Romantic Collection.
In 1995, Madonna released Something to Remember, a compilation of her hit ballads – distinct from her other greatest hits albums. It’s the same for Always Near; for the first time, a Kevin Kern compilation has a “theme” to it. As such, it is not meant to be a follow-up best-of album (for three studio albums post-More Than Words is a lot), but rather a gallery – if you will – of his pieces that evoke most those emotions related to romance and love. But then again, all of Kevin Kern’s music is so beautiful, so heartfelt (as played by him and heard by us), that one can consider this a follow-up best-of anyway.
I am a firm believer that art, no matter how horrible it may seem to critics, is nonetheless beautiful and pleasing to God when made with love and the best of the artist’s abilities. Since Kevin evidently pours his heart and soul into his music (otherwise it would not be so touching), as mentioned, all his music would be full of love. Still, if we are to accept that Kevin’s talent for sound painting is impeccable, then surely some songs more than others have been created expressly with images of romance.
For the tracks that did make it to the cut, most indeed fit into the theme of romance and love. President Yallop is renowned for having a talented ear that can identify a common theme across songs, and I am sure his genius played a very well-thought role in creating this album. Some of my favorites are here: the delicate touch of “Love’s First Smile” with the gentle piano and the embracing strings, the adventurous calling of “The Touch of Love” with the classic American wilderness of the guitar and flute (supplied by Pamela Copus of 2002, Kevin’s label-mate) – for love is the adventure of adventures; and my favorite track on the album, 1998’s “Le Jardin”, which has the ability to powerfully stir up those raw emotions of love due to the sharp gliding across of the violins. Other tracks were also clearly meant here: the minimalist but everlasting beauty of Kevin’s début, “Through the Arbor”, the soothing reassurance of “Through Your Eyes”, the passionate warmth of “Return to Love”, and the heartwarming bliss of the title track (taken from 2009’s Endless Blue Sky).
For a romantic album, I was a little surprised at the inclusion of “Above the Clouds”. Although it is one of my absolute favorites with its uplifting ethereality that really makes me feel like I’m flying above a sea of clouds, the romantic image is not dominant here. For another Embracing the Wind track, I would have gotten the quietly dramatic “From This Day Forward”, which was in fact the theme Kevin composed for his wife Pamela when they got married. I also missed the presence of “Beyond the Sundial” from the 1997 album of the same name, as it is a pensive ballad that really draws you in into the meaning of love. And, to complement “Love’s First Smile”, an album-mate, “Bittersweet”, could have made it as well, with its melancholy piano-and-string duet that stirs up the feeling of love and joy despite loss.
Even without the exclusion of “Above the Clouds”, those three songs I mentioned could still make it to the cut. The album features only 14 songs, same as More Than Words, which was three albums ago (not counting Christmas and Enchanted Piano). True, More Than Words has only 12 old tracks, while Always Near all 14. But this shouldn’t be a restriction. Always Near is actually shorter than More Than Words by a dozen seconds, and given Kevin’s more extensive repertoire, I would have rather 2-3 more songs made it to the album, such as the ones above, or rare tracks or even new pieces.
Indeed, the lack of a new track to promote the collection slightly put me off. If not a new track, then Kevin’s non-album singles namely his low-key but graceful “月亮代表我的心” (The Moon Represents My Heart), which is the quintessential Chinese love song; and “사랑하기 때문에” (Because I Love You), a fitting tribute to his most loyal audience of Korea. Those could have easily made the cut as tracks 15 and 16 as well.
Some of my favorite pieces didn’t make it either, but in fairness, not all are romantic in mood or image – such as my absolute favorite, “Through the Veil”, which is more soothing and heavenly – like “Above the Clouds”. “The Enchanted Garden”, though, is very apt for me, with its picture of a romantic walk, perhaps hand-in-hand, and I’d feel it should have been included too.
Because I love Kevin Kern’s music so much, I have spent the past several years creating my “perfect” Kevin Kern experiences by choosing my favorite pieces and then sequencing them in just the right order. My belief is that the choice of songs is only 50% of making an album – or playlist, for that matter – good. The other 50% is in how the songs are sequenced – a smooth listening experience is imperative. More so for a landscape walk for the ears type of music like Kevin Kern’s. After looking at the track listing and listening to it (since there are no new songs, I could construct it immediately on iTunes), I felt that the listening experience was still wanting. For example, “Love’s First Smile” sounds better with one song before it, preferably “Through the Arbor” (which also sounds off in the middle of the album), while “Softly Falling” isn’t suitable as the closing track; I’d rather it be “A Time Remembered” given the choices.
Nevertheless, the album felt oddly satisfying and not leaving me wanting for more when it ended. Let’s just say it’s a different way of listening to his music – not to everyone’s taste of course, but different and innovative nevertheless.
So, I’m still going to buy it. One, I make it a point to have all of Kevin Kern’s albums and songs – even more than my favorite pop artist, Britney Spears. Two, as I said, the album is worth having and listening on its own, whether you’re a seasoned Kevin fan who wants to add to his collection or experience the songs in a new way, or one who wants to get to know his music and all the beauty it speaks without singing.
Always Near – A Romantic Collection Track Listing
All tracks composed by Kevin Kern.
- Love’s First Smile (6:09) – From In My Life (1999)
- A Time Remembered (4:17) – From Beyond the Sundial (1997)
- Sundial Dreams (4:46) – From In the Enchanted Garden (1996)
- Le Jardin (4:51) – From Summer Daydreams (1998)
- Above the Clouds (5:25) – From Embracing the Wind (2001)
- Always Near (5:19) – From Endless Blue Sky (2009)
- And the Light is Forever (3:21) – From Imagination’s Light (2005)
- The Touch of Love (featuring Pamela Copus of 2002) (4:21) – From The Winding Path (2003)
- Through the Arbor (3:45) – From In the Enchanted Garden (1996)
- Safe in Your Embrace (3:47) – From Imagination’s Light (2005)
- Return to Love (4:23) – From Summer Daydreams (1998)
- Where Paths Meet (5:14) – From Beyond the Sundial (1997)
- Through Your Eyes (3:49) – From Embracing the Wind (2001)
- Softly Falling (featuring Randy Copus of 2002) (4:23) – From The Winding Path (2003)
The album is available in physical or digital form from Real Music, the iTunes Store, and Amazon.