No matter the music contained on this new record from Maddie & Tae, it’s mere release should be considered a hard fought victory for all lovers of music in the way it was forced to traverse a long and winding road before winning its eventual debut. Once signed to the mighty Big Machine Records, and spotting up a #1 song out of the gate with the anti Bro-Country anthem “Girl in a Country Song,” Maddie & Tae looked like one of country’s next superstar duos. Funny, fresh, attitudinal, and authentic to themselves, it was hard not to root for them, even if they veered more towards the pop realm of country.
But then trouble set in. Scott Brochetta at Big Machine bit off more than he could chew with the label’s DOT imprint, and mothballing it meant Maddie & Tae were out on the street, despite their initial success. Eventually they wound up getting picked up by UMG Nashville, amid writing and recording a conceptualized record for their second LP, but only to experience further delays and EP releases that didn’t respect the cohesive narrative they were looking to portray through their new music.
But now it’s finally here. Called The Way It Feels, it’s Maddie & Tae’s 15-song foray into the various stages of love and relationships, from the heartbreaking to the euphoric, to everything in between. And it comes at a time when arguably one of the greatest songs of the set called “Die From A Broken Heart” is finally finding traction in the radio charts after already proving to be a fan favorite and a streaming hit for a while now. Emblematic of the strong writing, and rootsy but sensible music Maddie & Tae can make at their best, it’s hard to not root for the song’s success.
But considering the entirety of The Way It Feels, the results are a little more mixed. Maddie & Tae made their way initially by being a little offbeat and out of the norm for the mainstream. Despite the “conceptualized” approach to this record, it feels a bit more safe, while the track listing really doesn’t present an arc, even if the tracks reordered properly would. At 15 songs, you can probably anticipate some misses. But there’s some hits as well that don’t deserve to get overlooked.
Overall, the record is just more pop than what initially put Maddie & Tae in sort of that sweet spot between the independent and mainstream. Where before you were surprised by the sense of self-awareness and maturity they brought to their music, songs like “Bathroom Floor,” “Drunk Or Lonely,” and “Ain’t There Yet” just feel like the same average, young adult fare that much of radio country bogs down in these days. We’re not talking Maren Morris-level of concern here, but none of these songs sound like hits, while they don’t really add much to the Maddie & Tae resume.
There’s just sort of an “average” feel that predominates this record—nothing that gets you running for the hills, but you have to search for the excitable moments or smart production, especially since we’ve already been listening to “Die From A Broken Heart” for a good long while now, along with a few of the others songs. Like many of the records that are ravaged by long delays and EP releases, sometimes you lose the momentum when the whole thing finally sees the light of day, even if it isn’t the material’s fault.
But there’s also some really great stuff on The Way It Feels. “My Man” with the bass line matching the melody reminds you of early 80’s Dolly Parton in the best of ways, and provides the record with a cool, upbeat moment. The opposite end of the emotional spectrum is touched on the superbly-written “Water In His Wine Glass,” which might be the record’s next best takeaway after “Die From A Broken Heart,” and is one of the more country offerings from the record.
There’s a few other decent songs here. “Tourist in This Town” finds an interesting mood, as does “Trying On Rings” that you can tell is personal to Maddie Marlow from the reference to her hometown of Sugarland, TX. But you’re still left feeling like you were hoping for a little more overall. The duo’s one attempt at getting feisty like they did so well on their first record is the final song “New Dog Old Tricks,” but it just feels more like B-grade pop country.
Nonetheless, judging The Way It Feels among its peer group of major label works renders it above the fold, while it would be a shame if some of the better songs got lost in the shuffle between the milder tracks. Maddie & Tae won’t benefit from the massive press praise some other women of country enjoy when they’re willing to mix it up politically on social media. But they remain a very important duo to the effort to return the mainstream to a semblance of country and meaning.
1 1/4 Guns Up (6.5/10)