Among the most common ways to launch an album these days is to steadily release a string of singles ahead of the record they’re from. This method admittedly requires a great deal of confidence from the artist as not only do the songs which didn’t get released ahead of time have to be good, but every song released has to be great. The idea is to build anticipation, and one bad song can quickly diminish any progress made by the other songs.
This was the strategy from Sydney, Australia based alternative indie rock trio, Middle Kids for their sophomore release, “Today We’re the Greatest”. In the months and weeks leading up to its release, they released one third of the twelve songs as singles. In their case, the confidence was well warranted, as all of the early released songs were solid and built beautifully upon their impressive debut “Lost Friends” from 2018. Now let’s get into this Today We’re the Greatest Review.
Today We’re the Greatest Review
The album begins with the vulnerable opener “Bad Neighbors”. Any thoughts of a sophomore slump are cast off seconds into this record as vocalist and lyricist Hannah Joy’s introspective lyrics float over some gentle yet determined acoustic guitar picking.
At 30 years old, Joy’s vocals sound like they have wisdom well beyond their years. That said, that vulnerability I mentioned is still felt within her voice and the chorus lyric itself:
“Just when I’m breaking free
I can’t quite hold it all together
Just when I’m breaking free
I can’t quite hold it all at all”
Bad Neighbors serves as both a beautiful introduction to this band for anyone new to them as well as a powerful reminder to those who loved that first record like I did of why they were a fan in the first place.
After sticking the opener, the album eases into three straight of the four singles. The first is Cellophane (Brain), a meandering but confident number which features one of the most interesting vocal melodies on the record. Joy shares that she stumbled upon the vocal melody while singing random notes for the chorus.
It’s one of many songs on the album which masterfully manage the energy throughout the entire track to keep the listener on their toes. This is a signature of the record and something I’ll come back to later.
Next is the first single released, “R U 4 Me”. This was the obvious choice for the first taste of the record as it’s the most reminiscent of the energy of the first record and creates a natural bridge to link the two. Grounded by a bopping and infectious drum beat, this song would have fit in very nicely on Lost Friends.
My personal favorite of the singles released ahead of the album is “Questions”. Built up from layered clapping as the percussion off of 3/4 time, it’s one of those songs that genuinely impresses and reminds me that no one is writing songs like Middle Kids right now.
Joy’s vocal timbre and specifically her unique melodies are what make songs like this.
They keep their finger on the pressure release for the first half of this song until it all explodes in the most gratifying way possible with a huge horn riff soaring over the first appearance of the full drum kit in the song.
Impressively, there’s no drop after this single-rush section of the record as the band moves into “Lost in Los Angeles”.
As an aside, one of my favorites off of their first record was a much appreciated love letter to my home state, “Maryland”.
More specifically it was written from Joy’s experiences living in Silver Spring, Maryland for a couple of years away from her home of Sydney during formative years of her life. After having a meaningful experience living somewhere so far from what she knew to be her home, she felt this internal crisis of suddenly not knowing where she truly belonged.
A bit of a tangent for a song I really love off of that first record, but it’s difficult to not compare it with Lost in Los Angeles.
Still, this is a dreamy, swaying tune with a bit of nice banjo and some of Joy’s best vocals at the end as she nicely transitions between the brassy tones of her chest voice into that soft floating head voice.
And surprisingly, even at nearly 4 minutes long, I found myself thinking this song should be longer which is an impressive feat in itself.
“Golden Star” is half of the midway point of the record, and it’s the sound of a band willing to take more chances with their identity. The warm reverbery guitar riff(s) in that bridge reminded me of something from Richard Edwards’ solo material (incidentally, check out my Lemon Cotton Candy Sunset review I just wrote for his debut record).
I haven’t given enough well deserved credit to the excellent production on this record by Lars Stalfors and Tim Fitz, the latter of which is both the band’s bassist as well as Joy’s husband.
“Summer Hill” is a prime example of this like many tracks on the record.
It’s not just achieving clean and spacious production, it’s also effectively managing and beautifully piecing together the sprawling dynamics of this record which makes it all so satisfying and constantly refreshing.
Dynamically, the music ranges from the small quiet and vulnerable to the loud and bombastic, oftentimes drastically within the same song. From both a composition and a production level, neither ever miss a beat.
According to Joy, “Some People Stay in Our Hearts Forever” reflects on the strange phenomenon that certain experiences you had during childhood can linger with and haunt you your entire life. It’s an attempt to accept those mistakes you made as a part of who you are and move on when everyone else has but you.
All of this just comes out as a beautiful cathartic “wolf howling…” in Joy’s words on one of my favorite hooks on the entire record as she belts out “I’m so sorry” on the chorus. This is another one of those ones which feels like it’s over much too soon.
“Run With You” is a pretty standard uptempo Middle Kids song which doesn’t resonate quite as much with me lyrically, though it’s sure to have a nice place alongside their other more energetic tracks in their live set.
Even when I think I’ve found the closest thing to an afterthought on this record, there’s a moment which pulls me back in. In this case it’s a slight little chord change coming out of the bridge going into that final chorus which feels like a trippy Gregg Alexander-esque moment, particularly with the lead chorus guitar riff.
If the track is a bit less memorable to me, it’s only because they raise that standard back up considerably with arguably the best rocker on the album next in “I Don’t Care”.
I might be more interested to hear this song live over any other on the record.
By my count, Joy shouts the chorus “I don’t fucking care I gotta do what I want to” 24 times throughout the song, but with all of the lovely layering, subtle changes, and unbridled energy beneath it, it never gets repetitive. I expect this to be a live fan favorite for a very long time.
The penultimate track was also the final single released ahead of the record, the marching “Stacking Chairs”.
It’s a lovely pledge from Joy to her husband Tim Fitz to be there for the bad as well as the good they share in their lives. The resoluteness of her vocals are reinforced by that driving and unwavering drum beat from drummer Harry Day, and while it doesn’t push the envelope as much as some of the other songs on the record, it’s a powerful track all around.
Sometimes certain songs are much more impactful in the context of the record with which they belong.
This is certainly the case for the titular and final track “Today We’re the Greatest”, a big piano ballad which was technically put out as a single just before the record dropped, but it’s more effective as it works to tie the record together as the anchor.
The production and many of the changes make it feel very reminiscent of something a late 90’s or early 2000’s Britpop act would have released as a single and had success with, playing it to thousands of fans in arena sized venues.
Lyrically it’s about the ease at which we can drift through the mundane nature of life with no awareness, but more importantly it’s about recognizing the brief moments of joy which break through.
It’s their rarity which makes them all the more impactful and appreciated.
Admittedly it’s a message which has been delivered many times before, yet one which is still so easy and damaging to forget. It’s the yin and yang of life.
Today We’re the Greatest is exactly what you want from the follow-up for a band who showed a great deal of promise on their debut. After going back and listening to said debut after this record, it’s clear the large step forward they’ve taken as songwriters and producers, as they’ve never sounded better or more consistent than on this record.
I have an admitted bad habit of grouping bands together in my head by genre, style, or even country, and I had been doing Middle Kids a disservice by doing just that after they had released one of the stronger debuts in my mind of the last few years with Lost Friends.
Today We’re the Greatest has deservedly put Middle Kids in a league of their own for me as the crafters of some of the best and most consistent alternative indie rock of today.
And while some fans will likely miss a bit of that rawness and rocking energy from the debut, there is more than enough to fill in the gaps and provide proof that Middle Kids are continuing to trend in a very good direction.
Middle Kids – Today We’re the Greatest Review Score: 4.5/5
You can listen to Today We’re the Greatest or purchase it at https://middlekids.bandcamp.com/album/today-we-re-the-greatest.
Quotes taken from https://music.apple.com/us/album/today-were-the-greatest/1547430962