Album Review: Miley Cyrus – Plastic Hearts

[RCA; 2020]

Of all the millennial popstars, Miley Cyrus has to be the weirdest. Where Taylor Swift established herself as robust chameleon, Lana Del Rey as nostalgic chanteuse, Ariana Grande as sensitive thirst-trapper and Lordi as psychedelic urban fey, Miley Cyrus’ musical output has always rotated around one big question: “What am I?”

This uncertainty directly relates to her musical identity and the often bewildering choices her career-arc underwent. Her image as awkward post-Disney vixen didn’t work, so she morphed into a retro 80s Madonna clone on an album that didn’t work, did “the sex” and climaxed in an awkward collaboration with alleged creep Terry Richardson, full frontal nudes and all. Two years later, she attempted to overcome expectations and business constraints by releasing Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz. One of the riskiest and most ambitious releases of any pop star, the collaboration with the Flaming Lips was a sprawling monstrum of nakedly confessional Psychedelic Pop. It was also borderline unlistenable, grotesque and spawned more memes than critical praise.

The ups and downs, the Madonna posturing, sexual self-empowerment and psychedelic cosplay indicate just how uncomfortable Cyrus feels about being center stage in the lamplight. But hey, at least 2017’s Younger Now was a pretty decent turn towards a Country-tinged singer songwriter sound and actually felt convincing. With the recent heel-turns of many established mainstream pop stars leading to great success stories, the groundwork for a revisionist Miley album is definitely there.

So here we are now, with a new Miley album that sports a fetchy New Wave cover and some impressive guest spots by established rockers Billy Idol and Joan Jett. The RAWK-CHICK angle writes itself, especially with lead-off track “WTF do I know”. Now, Miley Cyrus isn’t Brody Dalle and I don’t think anyone expected her to be, but still, the song is as by-the-numbers as possible. A generic pop track with “heavy” guitars over the refrain and Cyrus singing “I’m the type to drive a pickup through your mansion / I’m completely naked but I’m making it fashion.”

The frustration with authoritative oversight that unites Miley’s work is present, but conjures an odd angle that seems like a revisit of experiences and images of Miley that are seven years down the line. Even stranger, the follow up – the album’s title track – is a strange amalgamation of pop melody and rock instrumentation, something you’d expect to pop up on Avril Lavigne’s misconceived Goodbye Lullaby. “Angels Like You” is even weirder – maybe best described as a mixture of the ballad-sensibilities of Axl Rose and Paul McCartney, it feels like the type of track you’d find on mainstream radio stations in 1999, pomp and all.

It’s with “Prisoner” that it becomes clear that this isn’t Miley’s Coral Fang. The duet with Dua Lipa is the straight “80s throwback”-track we’ve heard many times this decade, a typical referential single that any Gen-X’er could call out. The formula repeats itself on what follows: “Gimme What I Want”, the Billy Idol feature “Night Crawling” and “Midnight Sky” sound like potential 1989 outtakes; neon-noir pop with a little bit of punch to them, but not very memorable. “High” is an odd Springsteen-esque track that at least provides Cyrus with a chance to prove her vocal chops and could have fit on her previous record, while “Hate Me” returns to the early-2000s-Avril vibe. It’s fairly well written, but the production makes it sound dated and doesn’t do it justice.

Before I turn to “Bad Karma”, I quickly want to express that the two closing tracks – “Never Be Me” and “Golden G String” are the type of balladry you’d expect on this record: soulful vocal performances, backed by synthesizer cushions that identify them as throwbacks. As far as bubblegum goes, they’re not bad, even if the songwriting – again – doesn’t really provide Cyrus with a chance to express herself.

“Bad Karma” is… something. Featuring Joan Jett, it’s a particularly bad track. Its melody and atmosphere, including suggestive moaning and incredibly dumb lyrics, is such a boomer-Rocker fantasy that it feels like a misplaced Bon Jovi song. This is undercut by the weird mixture of modern language and sexist idioms: “You may think I’m ghostin’, but the truth is I’m a liar / I sell you what I tell you, but you ain’t a fucking buyer / You thinkin’ that I’m sleepin’ when I’m creepin’ in the night”. The moment the words “itsy bitsy spider” drop later on, the track almost forces a skip on the listener. The image of a 50-something corporate musician penning what he deems women in their 20s sound like – a world of sultry over-dressed spandex tights and mullets forms in the mind’s eye. It’s a cliché wrapped in unpleasant adult-VHS fantasies that’s neither sexy nor empowered and definitely not current.

Cyrus’ turn in Black Mirror had more to say about her growth as a public figure and musician than Plastic Hearts offers. In the episode, she is cast as depressed pop-star that isn’t allowed to express genuine interests (aka a thinly veiled fictionalized version of Miley ca. 2013), drugged into submission. The character is saved when a young fan realizes the singer’s merchandise robot has more in common with the star than just the voice, happy end in leather-clad rock-club included. But if we turn to her new album, there’s neither a lot of rock or a lot of self-expression present. The 12 tracks never rise above the generic and lack emotional investment. Sexual imagery abounds in lyrics and promotional material, but it’s the lollipop-lickin’ type, the horny iconography Paul Verhoeven elaborately revealed in Showgirls. The 80s-nostalgia works a little better, but nine years after Drive re-introduced the world to Moroder’s iconic synthesizer sounds, Cyrus Disco-nymph feels more like Muse’s attempt to jump on the hype-train than Smashing Pumpkins’ self-aware left-turn.

Yet, worst of all, the songwriting here is just not very good. And even when the referential tracks are fairly decent, they only would have been minor entries of their era. Shades of Madonna and Avril can’t disguise that there’s no distinguished personality here. Honestly: at least Dead Petz was genuinely upsetting and was a failure borne from unique drive for artistic expression. I’m not sure what Plastic Hearts is meant to express, but Miley deserves better.