Release Date 03/19/2021
(Domino) NACC, SubModern
“I want to make music that loves its listener. Music that makes people feel seen, seen in the tiny little places that hide away in their hearts. I want people to hear our music, and feel a sense of love. And when I say love, it can be challenging, intense and tough. But it’s in the guts.” – Hannah Joy
In the fall of 2019, Middle Kids were recording Today We’re The Greatest -- their sophomore album out March 19 -- when they folded a precious sound into a brand new track. Lead singer and songwriter Hannah Joy was a few months into her pregnancy with her first child, and she and Tim Fitz, her husband and bandmate, had an idea: they recorded her 20-week sonogram, and wove the gentle, rapid thump of their baby boy’s beating heart into the last 20 seconds of “Run With You,” an exuberant declaration of devotion.
It’s a lovely and unexpected choice, one that stuns with its casual intimacy -- and it’s perfectly at home on Today We’re The Greatest, the Sydney pop-rock trio’s most personal and courageous effort to date. Since making their debut with 2017’s self-titled EP, Joy, Fitz and drummer Harry Day have toured the world on the strength of their soaring anthems: critical acclaim came quickly thanks to the euphoric choruses of breakthrough single “Edge of Town” and the nostalgic, arena-ready bangers of 2018’s Lost Friends, which Triple J dubbed best Australian album later that year. Middle Kids enamored fans with their infectious melodies and the universal longing in Joy’s words, but she felt compelled to pull directly from her own experiences -- and break down boundaries she’d previously set for herself -- when ideas for Today We’re The Greatest started to form.
“Historically I’ve written a lot of conceptual lyrics,” she says. “Stepping into this album, I wanted to allow myself to go and write and not feel like I had any barriers to do so. I’m quite a guarded person in a lot of ways, and I don’t want to reveal that much about myself in music. I’ve come to realize that having that barrier is a real problem for creativity. I felt like I put a ceiling on myself in terms of where I was allowing myself to go, digging deep, and that totally affects the music. I’m interested in finding the best music I can, but if I’m not willing to put skin in the game, then I’m not actually free.”
Joy and Fitz pursued this freedom across the Pacific when they decamped from Sydney to Los Angeles in October 2019. Day joined them soon after when they began recording with producer Lars Stalfors (St. Vincent, Soccer Mommy, Cold War Kids). With the drastic change in scenery due to the literal and figurative trip outside their comfort zone, their creative inclinations strayed from Lost Friends’ deafening bombast into experimental territory.
“When we recorded Lost Friends, we were pretty much on the road that whole year,” says Fitz. “That informed the decision for me to produce it, and it also resulted in a very loud album. At that point we were writing a lot of energetic songs because we were experiencing crowds for the first time -- having to win a crowd, wanting to give the people an injection of energy when they showed up to our show. In that way, I think that it’s an aggressive, powerful sound in some ways, and raw. We wanted this album to be more dynamic.”
Today We’re The Greatest begins and ends with acoustic tones, but Middle Kids also relished in exploring the space between this smoldering intensity and an explosive vivacity that never burns out of control, from the brassy climax of “Questions” to the starkly confessional quality of “Some People Stay in Our Hearts Forever” and the insistent gallop of “R U 4 Me?.” They heard potential in unlikely places, as Fitz used a pair of scissors as a percussion instrument on “Summer Hill” and repurposed a recording of birds chirping in a rain shower that he captured at their old home in Sydney for “Golden Star.”
Album opener “Bad Neighbours,” a plaintive slow-burner, represents this shift in their sound, and one in their working dynamic as well: Joy has always been Middle Kids’ primary wordsmith, but Fitz wrote most of the lyrics for the melancholy tune, which was informed by a traumatic event from Joy’s childhood. “It was like he was giving me permission to go there, and he also [gave] actual speech to feeling, which I think was very profound for me,” she recalls.
“In Hannah’s songs there’s a real vulnerability and at times a volatility that came through in [Lost Friends],” says Day. “But I feel like it came through even more in this album.”
Given the massive changes Joy went through as she was working on Today We’re The Greatest, it’s easy to see -- and hear -- why. Beyond her baby’s cameo on “Run With You,” Joy’s journey to motherhood and her marriage with Fitz has imbued her love songs with a vibrancy that’s unabashedly romantic yet free of clichés. “Stacking Chairs,” with its unique allegories and Joy’s sunny vocals, strikes this delicate balance beautifully: it’s a testament to her deep connection with Fitz and the new, “infinitesimal” love that transformed their lives with their son’s arrival.
“A few years ago, I would’ve been like, ‘I can’t write a love song!’ I think it’s because love was still too tinny, too shallow for me to actually understand where I was at personally,” she says. “‘Stacking Chairs’ is a great example of that: I’m understanding love more, and I’m still a tiny, stupid idiot. But I’m going, ‘That’s something worth fighting for, and something worth celebrating, too!’ And that is profound. It feels more powerful than it does cheesy because it isn’t cheesy -- it almost feels impossible to be cheesy now that I know what it is.”
Today We’re The Greatest is the open, uninhibited product of fearless collaboration: these breakthroughs wouldn’t have occurred had Joy not pushed herself to plumb new, personal depths in her lyrics, or if Fitz and Day hadn’t completed them with their instrumental flourishes. From the first note to the closing title track, Middle Kids are building on the strong foundation of Lost Friends while exploring the possibilities and beautiful contradictions in every note.
“Often, the world is very dualistic,” says Joy. “We always want to be like, it’s this or this, but sometimes I feel it’s both -- and can we hold both? Can we hold the brokenness? Can we hold the beauty? That has definitely been a defining bit of this album, the fragility in that dance.”