Song Review: Maddie & Tae, “Friends Don’t”

Of all the artists Maddie & Tae could have taken a cue from, why did it have to be Jason Aldean?

Madison Marlow and Taylor Dye exploded onto the country scene in 2014, riding a Bro-Country backlash all the way to No. 1 with “Girl In A Country Song.” Since then, however, their career has resembled a balloon with a slow leak: “Fly” made it to #9, “Shut Up And Fish” petered out at #23, and “Sierra” barely made it inside the top fifty. Now, with the climate of country radio seemingly turning in their favor, the duo is back with “Friends Don’t,” the leadoff single for their upcoming second album. Unfortunately, it tries a little too hard to blend in with the rest of country radio, and it sets a bizarrely-dark tone that leaves the listener with the exact opposite impression that the song intended.

The instruments here are surprisingly conventional for M&T: An spry acoustic guitar carrying the melody, a real drum set, a few siren stabs from electric and steel guitars, and…yeah, that’s about it. (The YouTube video claims there’s a mandolin, piano, and organ here too, but they’re either really quiet or indistinguishable from the other instruments. There does, however, seem to be a token banjo rolling in the background.) The biggest problem, however, is the mood the song sets: “Friends Don’t” leans heavily on darker tones and minor chords, creating an atmosphere that’s unsettling and borderline creepy, which doesn’t suit the writing at all. Instead, it makes you question the healthiness of the relationship, and gives you the impression the narrator is confronting a stalker or something. In other words, it’s a far cry from the neotraditional vibe I got from Maddie & Tae’s prior work, and it’s frankly a step in the wrong direction.

I’ve been hammering Jason Aldean for singing songs too seriously for a while now, but the disease has been spreading to more and more artists, and Maddie Marlow appears to be the blight’s latest victim. Technically, the vocals are pretty darn solid: Marlow sounds comfortable in both her upper and lower range, her flow is smooth and easy, and Dye complements her with mostly on-point harmony work (that said, there are times when Dye seems to be singing a second melody part, and her timing on the “there’s somethin'” bridge echo is off by a mile). The problem is that Marlow delivers her lines so forcefully and seriously that the song feels more like a hostile confrontation than an invitation to move out of the friend zone. In turn, this makes Marlow sound completely unconvincing when she professes her love for the other party on the bridge (for someone who’s supposedly madly in love, she sure doesn’t sound like it). It’s not a bad performance, but it’s a bad fit for the subject matter.

As for said subject matter, “Friends Don’t” is basically “The Difference” from a different angle: The narrator is explaining to their “friend” that the actions being performed (and it’s never clear who’s actually performing them—is it the narrator or the other person?) are not those of a friend, but of a romantic partner. It’s the sort of song that feels like it should be a happy one: “Hey, we don’t like each other, we love each other! Huzzah!” Instead, the serious, almost sinister tone of the vocals and production make the imagery feel more creepy than cute:”Call you in the middle of the night”? “Playing with their keys/Finding reasons not to leave”? Accidental touches? This sound less like love, and more like grounds for a restraining order. (In truth, though, these scenes are commonplace in recent country songs, making them not only feel sleazy, but also unoriginal.) Ultimately, the writing is to weak to stand on its own, and the ill-advised seriousness of the track sends them down a path that is much less pleasant than the one they intended to travel.

“Friends Don’t” is a poorly-executed song that manages to take a love song and make it feel as unromantic as possible. Not only is it a major step backwards for Maddie & Tae, but much like Craig Campbell’s “See You Try,” it’s a signal that the pair is already in survival mode, desperately trend-hopping to keep what’s left of their career afloat. What made M&T great, however, was that they didn’t sound like everyone else, and if they’re just going to roll out the same stuff as the rest of Nashville (and do it this poorly to boot), then I’ve no longer got a reason to pay attention.

Rating: 4/10. Pass.