Early on, it was clear the Australian trio Middle Kids had the sound, the skills and the ambition to become the kind of band that pumps out big, emotionally charged indie-rock anthems on a regular basis.
You could hear it in the Mumford & Sons-ish arena-ready stomp of “Never Star” from the band’s 2017 self-titled debut, in the never-ending crescendo of “Edge of Town” from 2018’s Lost Friends, and in the visceral, nursery rhyme-like appeal of “Beliefs and Prayers,” from the 2019 EP New Songs for Old Problems.
On their new album Today We’re the Greatest, Middle Kids fully embrace their destiny as anthem-rock prodigies, powered by lead singer/songwriter Hannah Joy’s most personal set of lyrics and the benefits of working in a real studio for the first time. From front to back, the band’s sophomore full-length just sounds great, and whatever it lacks in the element of surprise, it makes up for with consistency.
Perhaps the best example of Middle Kids’ horizon-wide prowess is Greatest’s title track, which is also its final track, and the kind of song that, with any luck, will be soundtracking movie trailers, Olympic highlight reels and montages played at high school graduations for years to come. It’s absolutely perfect for those kinds of uses, with Joy touching on impermanence, mindfulness and magic through a beautiful roller-coaster chorus. (Note to future programmers: Be sure to fade out before she gets to the grimly realistic coda: “Life is boring and gory sometimes.”)
Elsewhere, the compelling and dramatic “Cellophane (Brain)” starts off quiet and acoustic before exploding into a tangle of electric guitar squall and some impressive vocal gymnastics from Joy. “R U 4 Me?” is a rousing dance-rock tune wherein Joy wrestles plainly with loneliness and uncertainty. (It’s also home to the album’s coolest guitar solo.) And “I Don’t Care” provides Greatest’s most powerful jolt of energy, pairing a breakneck pace with Joy in full rebellion mode, chanting “I don’t fucking care, I gotta do what I want to” 24 times in under three minutes. It’s a fist-pumper!
Today We’re the Greatest isn’t all bangers, however. A stretch of several songs in the middle of the album find Middle Kids pushing and pulling on their own boundaries, whether that means rolling out electronic squiggles and galloping horns (“Questions”), building an achingly beautiful power ballad atop the modest chop of a banjo (“Lost in Los Angeles”), making a sparse arrangement somehow feel warm and lush (“Golden Star”), or using the heartbeat—recorded from a sonogram—of Joy and bandmate Tim Fitz’s baby boy as a rhythmic element (“Run With You”). Every step of the way, Middle Kids sound like they know where they want to go and how to get there.
That’s a place most bands never experience, especially so early in their run. Middle Kids would do well to let a seam show here and there as they continue to grow and change, but on Today We’re the Greatest, they make great music sound effortless.
Ben Salmon is a committed night owl with an undying devotion to discovering new music. He lives in the great state of Oregon, where he hosts a killer radio show and obsesses about Kentucky basketball from afar. Ben has been writing about music for more than two decades, sometimes for websites you’ve heard of but more often for alt-weekly papers in cities across the country. Follow him on Twitter at @bcsalmon.