(Editor’s note: The Musical Divide’s album reviews moving forward will now be divided as reviews – intended to be more concise snapshots of our thoughts on projects – and discussions – intended to be lengthier and more in-depth than the typical reviews. In essence, our traditional standalone reviews from years past will now serve as album discussions, while reviews formerly clustered together in the Clusterpluck review series will now no longer be clustered together and, instead, revert back to standing as their own individual – yet shorter – posts. Past posts from this year on albums from Tony Logue and Noah Guthrie, for example, have been updated as “discussions” to reflect this change.
This is one of those reviews where I have frustrations with a project even before hearing it, and where I’m not sure where to properly direct them. I’m not sure how excited I’m supposed to be over a new Maddie & Tae EP, given that the last time they went this route with releasing new music, they clustered a bunch of them together to form one very long overdue sophomore album anyway (released in April 2020, no less. Ouch). I don’t blame the duo for this, either; their career has felt mismanaged since their Big Machine Records days, after all. It says something when a huge hit like “Die From a Broken Heart” can become a huge comeback moment for them yet not establish the needed momentum to propel something further.
In a way, then, I get going back to the EP approach to test the waters and possibly re-establish new ground, especially when it sports eight songs and could arguably stand on its own anyway. I think my main issue this time around is that it feels very much like an extension of that aforementioned sophomore album, rather than a needed step forward. I still miss the stridently neotraditional tones of the duo’s debut, but if they’re going to push farther toward a pop-country direction, at least this feels better produced across the board than their sophomore effort. On its best moments you’ll get songs that exceed on generally great harmonies and excellent atmospheric elements to balance out the pedal steel and warm guitar rollick – the big highlights in this area being “Don’t Make Her Look Dumb,” “The Other Side,” and “Strangers.” On the other hand, you’ll get tracks where the synthetic production feels overbearing and the fake percussion feels clunky in trying to establish a groove on “Grown Man Cry” or “Wish You The Best.”
Where this feels mostly like an extension of that sophomore album, though, is in the lyrics and themes. This is a generally lovestruck project where the songs don’t differ much from either falling in love or falling out of it. To the duo’s credit, I do think the writing is a little stronger and more interesting this time around. “Woman You Got” still feels too choppy in tone and presentation, but it’s generally sweet and playful and ended up growing on me, as did “What It’s Like Loving You.” But there’s also clunkier moments like the cheap revenge burn of the hook on “Wish You the Best” that feel forced, at best. The real gems come when the duo try to write less for themselves and more for other parties. The Lori McKenna feature and co-write on “The Other Side” helps a ton as it is, but there’s a sense of ease and camaraderie offered in its life advice that adds a sense of sisterhood to Maddie & Tae’s writing I’m only just picking up on now.
An even better highlight is “Don’t Make Her Look Dumb,” which may be my favorite song of theirs to date. It’s a gentle warning to a friend’s boyfriend who fits the archetypal “bad boy” image not to drag out something that won’t work, where she can tell he’s enjoying a brief fling and her friend is thinking of forever. It’s that complex untangling that gives this track a lived-in detail missing from other tracks here. I think it’s that the writing feels more distanced on other tracks and a bit more generic in the framing, like “Grown Man Cry” or the title track. Still, in terms of their love songs, the closer, “Strangers,” is a fantastic piano ballad that feels more mature, lived-in, and weathered than anything they’ve cut before. So again, I’m torn. This is less a great project as it is a project with some of the duo’s best-ever songs, and I’m still not convinced I’m wild about their musical direction as a whole, especially without the added anchor of a “Die From a Broken Heart” to propel further projects this time around. Still, this is an enjoyable listen; I just know they can do even better.
- Favorite tracks: “Don’t Make Her Look Dumb” (feat. Morgane Stapleton), “The Other Side” (feat. Lori McKenna), “Strangers,” “What It’s Like Loving You”
- Least favorite track: “Wish You the Best”