Song Review: Maddie & Tae, “Die From A Broken Heart”

Okay, this is the Maddie & Tae we all expected to see.

“Friends Don’t” was an absolute mess of a song, and radio mostly gave it the silent treatment, forcing it to limp its way to an awful #33 peak on Billboard’s airplay chart. Three years removed from the pair even getting a glimpse of the Top Ten, such a mediocre showing would normally have brought down the curtain on the careers of Madison Marlow and Taylor Dye. However, a funny thing happened on the way to the dumpster: The meta of the genre started to shift in a more-traditional direction, favoring a sound that the pair had championed early in their career and sat squarely in their wheelhouse. This shift meant that instead of a boot out the door, Maddie & Tae got a stay of execution, a shiny new EP, and a second chance with their follow-up single “Die From A Broken Heart.” The track is a return to form for M&T, with a restrained, comfortable feel to it now that everything is pulling in the same direction.

The production, which seemed to be working at cross purposes with the writing on “Friends Don’t,” is much more suitable and complementary this time around. It’s a fairly restrained arrangement overall, driven primarily by an acoustic guitar and a light-touch drum set and backed up with some steel guitar stabs and mandolin riffs. Unlike the cold, creepy vibe their last arrangement had, this one is warmer and comforting, as if it’s trying to comfort the narrator as much as their mother is in the lyrics. The minor chords are still here, but they’re mostly outnumbered in this I-IV-vi-V-IV structure and drowned out by the brighter tones of the instruments themselves. It’s a bit of a throwback to their last Top Ten hit “Fly,” and seems like a much better fit for everyone and everything involved.

Vocally, you probably couldn’t find a better singer for a track like this than Marlow, which is the exact opposite of what she seemed to be on “Friends Don’t.” This time around, not only does her range fit the song’s key perfectly and her earnest charisma allow her to play the narrator’s role with aplomb, her youth and relative inexperience give her added gravitas in the part. The word that keeps popping into my mind when listening to this is relatable: Perhaps we haven’t all been devastated by a breakup like this one, but many of us have made calls like this before (that darn door still doesn’t close right), and the emotion and subtle panic in Marlow’s delivery does a nice job connecting with the audience and bringing those same feelings to the forefront along with her. (I wouldn’t call Dye’s harmony terribly groundbreaking or interesting, but she’s got excellent vocal chemistry with Marlow and really gives the lead vocals some added depth and texture.) I feel for this narrator, and compared to how little I’ve felt for some narrators lately (LoCash, Adam Craig, even Carrie Underwood), this is definitely a step in the right direction.

The lyrics paint a picture of the narrator on the phone with their mother, looking for some shred of reassurance that they will be able to rebound from a not-so-mutual parting. Lamenting lost love is one of the foundational topics of country music and certainly not a novel one, but it’s the way the other details are delivered that really make this interesting. The way the breakup was framed as part of more-mundane requests like laundry or home renovation tips, combined with the sense of chaos and anxiety weaved into the words of someone in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable situation like this, really works to make the narrator more interesting and sympathetic. I also really liked the way some of the breakup effects were imagined as medical conditions: blowing out a knee by “praying so hard,” going blind “from crying in the dark,” and of course, wondering if you can “die from a broken heart.” I’ve certainly made a few of those “hey, is this serious/contagious/life-threatening?” calls before, and it strengthens the ties between the audience and the character while underlining the serious nature of the relationship. (Also, the line about the father and the pistol was really funny.) It’s a really well-written song, and it’s executed to perfection by Maddie & Tae and their producer.

“Die From A Broken Heart” showcases the Maddie & Tae that people were raving about back in the “Girl In A Country Song” era, and the genre winds have shifted just enough to make me think they might be on to something here. The production is sentimental without feeling sappy, the duo breathes life in the narrator without trying to oversell them, and the writing puts the whole thing in a familiar, conversational context that can appeal to a wide audience. Maddie & Tae have something good on their hands here, and while it’s too early to tell if it can overcome country music’s chronic allergy to female artists, it’s got as good a shot as anything else I’ve heard lately.

Rating: 7/10. Not bad at all.

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.