It’s hard to say exactly who or what is to blame for all of it, but Maddie and Tae’s sophomore release is most certainly a sophomore slump.
Truthfully, it’s getting exasperating discussing poor album roll out plans in reviews in the wake of COVID-19. With Maddie and Tae’s roll out for The Way It Feels, however, exasperating turns into downright infuriating, and I don’t assign the blame to them.
Now, the duo’s critics may say this was bound to happen anyway – after all, their biggest hit lampooned the bro-country era, which, for as sexist as it was, also was just a subgenre rather than an immediate marker of quality.
Of course, the obvious flaw in that criticism is that the duo proved they had far more potential than that (still excellent) novelty tune showed anyway. Their debut album, Start Here, was a breath of fresh air for its time – filled with warm production hearkening back to country music of the 2000s, writing that was mature and nuanced, and two charismatic members behind it all. And if it wasn’t for Scott Borchetta shuttering the Dot Records imprint completely, the duo may have had a solid career, even if followup singles faced diminishing returns.
It didn’t stop the duo, of course, and though they’ve yet to reach the same heights as that debut single, their artistic ambitions certainly grew brighter. Originally framed as a concept album, their sophomore project aimed to tell a story of a relationship from beginning to end … at least it did a few years ago. Since then, Mercury Records has completely mismanaged their career trajectory. First, while “Die From A Broken Heart” gathered real groundswell support throughout 2018, they decided to ship the completely bland “Friends Don’t” to radio instead, forcing the actual hit to wait an entire year before its release as a single; and by then, the momentum was there to at least give the duo a gold-certified record, but not enough to make country radio budge. And that’s before watching their supposed concept record get chopped into a series of EPs released last year that did nothing for their actual momentum.
That, more or less, is The Way It Feels – a combination of those two EPs with five new songs that, at this point, may or may not be the original concept album the duo had planned to release. If it is, it’s a haphazardly sequenced slog of an album that, across the board, represents a decline in quality for the promising duo.
And that’s all the more infuriating when examining what it means for the industry at large. Given that their recent singles haven’t been performing as well as they should have, it’s not surprising to hear their label try to pivot them from the neotraditional styling of their debut album to something more modern. The problem is that, while the duo’s original sound wasn’t pushing the envelope for country music, it was a welcome sound for a very dire time in the genre. Now, five years later, the guitar tones and piano lines on this album are incredibly smoothed-out and polished, the banjo and mandolin receive token representation, at best, and the synthetic elements feel tacked-on and weightless for the actual foundation of this project. In other words, whereas once the duo stood proudly on their own, now they just sort of blend in with everyone else on country radio, and that’s a real shame.
Again, too, I blame their record label more than I blame them, because both Maddie Marlow and Tae Dye are still great songwriters. Their best tracks showcase a wisdom beyond their years, and they aren’t afraid to tackle heavier emotional complexities in their framing. “Die From A Broken Heart” is still an easy highlight for letting the questions asked from a daughter to a mother fill in the story of how this breakup went down, and “One Heart To Another” operates similarly as an old flame has a chance meetup with her ex-lover’s new girlfriend. While it can come across as clingy or pushy in the wrong hands (several mainstream country male artists have opted for a similar theme with much less maturity), it serves more as a legitimate warning for the other woman’s safety and well-being rather than her attempt to win this guy back. The acoustics may feel a bit too thin on “Water In His Wine Glass,” but it’s another example of how Marlow is nailing a tricky emotional balance watching her lover succumb to alcoholism and not knowing whether to come down hard on him or try a gentler method to get through; so she makes a simple plea that’s convincing for that situation.
Sadly, those moments are also scattered on a bloated, incredibly inconsistent project that feels like half of the album they wanted to make and half of a simple label and radio concession. Most of these tracks just revolve around how cool the lead character’s lover is, enough to where they really think he could get on “The New York Times best-seller list” if he wrote a book on how to properly love a woman on “Write A Book” (I’m thinking more along the lines of one of those generic cowboy romance novels you see in Walmart). The writing is often just horribly cheesy and a huge step back for them – the debut album sounds more mature than this. Sadly, there’s not much to say about it other than that, nor is there much to differentiate tracks like “Everywhere I’m Goin” or “My Man.” There’s some attempt at depth on “Trying On Rings” as this young couple moves toward marriage, but the details connecting their younger life to their current life feel incredibly boilerplate for this brand of pop-country.
Even on tracks like “I Don’t Need To Know” or “Ain’t There Yet” where there’s a decent lyrical foundation, the instrumentation and production just aren’t doing much to stand out on this album. There’s a remarkably solid groove on “Drunk or Lonely,” and I like how the atmospherics drop out of the mix on the chorus on “Tourist In This Town” to reflect that disconnected, disoriented feeling the character feels on that track; but it’s balanced out with a super clean, processed piano riff on “My Man” that’s among the most gutless I’ve heard in some time, and the thin backing vocals placed against “Ain’t There Yet” do nothing for the song. And that’s not even to mention the horrible attempts at barn-burning southern-rock on both “Bathroom Floor” and “New Dogs Old Tricks,” the latter by far being their worst song to date with its horrible lack of groove and choppy flow. Marlow is a charismatic performer capable of a lot on the highlights, but on tracks like these she’s attempting a weak half-talking/half-singing delivery that’s way less cool than it thinks it is.
That, sadly, is also how the album ends, and for as harsh as I’ve been toward this album, my real anger is directed at the system behind it all. Maddie and Tae’s sophomore album should not be this bloated or as shoddily produced as it is, nor should it have had to wait this long for release. Even if there’s a few scattered highlights, all it shows is a dichotomy between the album that could have been and where their handlers are hoping they’ll take their sound next, which, sadly, is not interesting – nor does it bode well for the duo going forward.
- Favorite tracks: “Die From A Broken Heart,” “Drunk or Lonely,” “One Heart To Another,” “Tourist In This Town,” “Water In His Wine Glass”
- Least favorite track: “New Dog Old Tricks”