Because it wouldn’t be a year in country music without them.
Midland may remain a favorite act of this blog, but it’s been almost two years since they last appeared in a review (“Cheatin’ Songs” was released back in January of 2020), and nearly three years since they made any meaningful impact on the radio (“Burn Out” hit #3 on Billboard’s airplay chart in March of 2019; they haven’t even cracked the Top 20 since). This isn’t to say, however, that the band hasn’t been active: Since “Cheatin’ Songs” first appeared, the group has released a live album, a documentary with accompanying soundtrack, and eventually an EP The Last Resort that feels like either a prelude to or a stand-in for a third studio album. “Sunrise Tells The Story” was chosen to be the project’s first radio release, and it’s a nice addition to their discography that captures the post-euphoria shock and buzz of the day after an unexpected tryst.
I’ve gone after a lot of tracks for their basic guitar-and-drum mixes, but you could level the same charge against the production here as well, so why does this mix succeed where others fail? Let’s start with the time signature, as slower 3/4 tracks are pretty rare these days (I might call this 6/8 rather than 3/4, but that’s a nitpicky distinction). The instrument tones play a role as well, with the guitars and drums featuring a slightly rougher tone and texture that evoke the group’s traditional-leaning sound more than the slicker mixes of modern times. (The steel guitar isn’t as prominent as it is in Scotty McCreery’s “Damn Strait,” but it gets enough screen time to leave its mark on the sound instead of feeling token.) While the vibe of the song feels too neutral to help the listener feel something, in this case it’s actually the point: There’s a sense of numb bewilderment to this sound, accentuating the fact that no one really knows if what transpired was a good thing or a bad thing. There’s a real sense of atmosphere to this mix: Rather than passing judgement, the mix gives you the sense that you’re surveying the aftermath of a chaotic event, letting you feel the unease in the air rather than just telling you about it. This is a messy moment for everyone involved, and the producer does a nice job transporting the listener into the moment, giving them the facts, and letting them draw their own conclusion. In other words, it’s a very different sound and approach from many tracks on the radio today, and it helps the track stand out from its peers and draw people into the story.
I had some issues with lead singer Mark Wystrach’s performance on “Cheatin’ Songs,” but he rebounds nicely on a track with a deceptively-high degree of difficulty. The band has created a roguish image for themselves that lets them fits comfortably into the rowdier part of barroom life while lending them credibility for the hard-earned perspective they get in the aftermath, and this song requires both sides of this coin to be believable. Wystrach’s easy charm and smooth delivery do much of the heavy lifting here: His past work makes you believe his character would absolutely stumble into a night like this (he was “Mr. Lonely,” after all), but he’s able to take a step back here and survey the scene objectively—he’s neither too high or too low about what happened—in a way that makes him seem genuine and even sympathetic, especially as he wonders if the one-night stand could become something more. The primary feeling here seems to be shock, as if the narrator is still feeling the effects of the encounter and is a bit surprised at what happened, and Wystrach’s distanced tenor (mixed with a small drop of disbelief) meshes well with the mood set by the production. (As usual, the band contributes solid harmony and instrument work for the track—one of the benefits of having a standout sound is that it justifies the band’s place on the payroll!) It’s a solid overall performance from the trio, and it makes the song feel more compelling as a result.
I really like the lyrics here for a couple of reasons:
- The one-night stand story here is nothing new in country music, but the narrator’s attitude is refreshing: No blame is cast, no buck is passed, and no spin is spun—the narrator is processing the scene at the same time as we are, and they take a just-the-facts approach to allow us to draw our conclusions, and they neither dodge culpability for the event nor critique the other person for causing it to happen.
- The level of detail is amazing (especially in the opening verse), painting the picture of a messy, chaotic scene that the audience can sink their collective teeth into and visualize. Unlike the “ineffectively vague” songs we usually get, this is a story that the listener isn’t expected to have experienced, so we get the full breakdown to be able to place ourselves on the scene.
- Yes, it’s an ephemeral one-night stand and even the narrator admits that, but there’s something endearing about the way the narrator expresses their preferences on the bridge (“don’t know where it’s going, I just want you to stay”). This may have started as a no-strings-attached meeting and may yet end that way, but there’s something about this part that really humanizes the narrator and makes you wonder if there might be more to the story in the end.
It’s not a perfect piece (for one thing, the writers tried to cram too many syllables on some of the lines), but it’s a well-told story that grabs the listener’s attention.
“Sunrise Tells The Story” is a good song that stands up to the best stuff on the radio right now, and while I have no illusions that the industry will give it the time of day, it’s cool to see that Midland is sticking to their guns and taking a new old approach to catch our attention. It’s not really a positive or negative song, but through thoughtful writing, understated production, and a well-executed vocal performance, the trio turns an ambiguous fling into gripping theater that keeps people turning the pages to see what comes next. What comes next for Midland may be anybody’s guess (hopefully The Last Resort gets expanded into a full LP, although I’m not all that enamored by some of the EP tracks), but for my money they’re still doing the right things, even if they aren’t rewarded for it.
Rating: 7/10. Technically this is the lowest score Midland has ever gotten here, but that says more about the tougher scale I seem to be using this year than anything else. Go check this one out.