Notwithstanding the title of her 2013 album, Miley Cyrus makes anthems, not “Bangerz“. Her songs rarely possess that sparkling euphoria of total pop synergy that colours the work of, say, Taylor Swift or Little Mix. But on Plastic Hearts, her seventh album, released today (27 November), it’s clear that Miley Cyrus stands for something. She distinguishes herself from much of the commercial pop machine – and her previous output – by creating songs that have thematic urgency.
Drawing from 1980s rock, metal and her country roots (a whole album of Metallica covers is supposedly in the works), Cyrus abandons her belting soprano, sounding more like a 50-year-old woman in cowboy boots who’s smoked a pack a day for her whole adult life. There are shuddering bass synths, a lesbian club romp, an appearance from Billy Idol and enough sage uses of the word “honey” to make you feel like she is on her eighth life of nine. The overriding mood is one of characteristic chaos, like Cyrus is spinning you round and round on an office chair, cackling maniacally and refusing to stop even though you feel sick.
As is usually the case for Cyrus’s releases, Plastic Hearts is a flagrant display of a new identity. Since her first major character switch, when she did away with her virginal Disney vibe by twerking in latex on Robin Thicke at the 2013 VMAs, she has rattled through several more styles. It does feel like Plastic Hearts‘ might be the one she sticks to – she seems at home with her new mullet, and the rebellious aesthetic she’s been cultivating since 2013 feels less jarring couched in punky new wave than in sexualised club pop.
Plastic Hearts is not quite a eureka moment, the sudden reveal of the “real” Miley – but it is a decent collection of mainly compelling, occasionally great retro-sounding tracks. She sounds pleasingly androgynous, as much Aerosmith as P!nk. The pre-released “Prisoner”, featuring Dua Lipa, stands out as the radio single with its repetitive melody, atmospheric synths and pounding rhythm. Its accompanying video features several semi-erotic scenes between Lipa and Cyrus (who has been open about her pansexuality) and exhibits Cyrus’s penchant for instigating outrage. Her mouthful of blood, erratic, flailing movements, wide eyes and decision to eat a spider seem especially eyebrow-raising next to Lipa’s cold, elegant beauty.
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This taste for rebellion sometimes slips into rage. In the driving opener “WTF Do I Know” she thrashes out her recent divorce, “pouring out a bottle full of my frustration”. The album repeatedly returns to lyrics about the scrutiny her body has been subject to since she was a child star: here, she quips “I’m completely naked but I’m making it fashion”. In the softer and sadder closing track “Golden G String”, she reflects: “There are layers to this body/Primal sex and primal shame/They told me I should cover it/So I went the other way.”
Lead single “Midnight Sky” mixes determined lyrics –“I was born to run/I don’t belong to anyone” – with samples from Stevie Nicks’s “Edge of Seventeen”. It’s built on a boring, generic verse-chorus structure but is redeemed by its The Weeknd-esque, contemporary-sounding chorus melody, which works particularly well juxtaposed with Nicks. (Nods to classic rock appear elsewhere on the album, such as title track “Plastic Hearts”, which riffs on the intro of the Rolling Stones’s “Sympathy for the Devil”.) “Gimme What I Want” contains the sort of bassline that makes your ribcage vibrate as Cyrus espouses her independence – “Gimme what I want or I’ll give it to myself”. In “Never Be Me”, she declares: “If you’re looking for stable that’ll never be me” in her new, intensely gravelly vocal style, over hyper-produced strings.
There are more reflective moments too: memorable country ballads that feel genuine. “High” is the album highlight, pitting Cyrus’s husky alto over acoustic guitar. “Sometimes I get a little too low and I can’t see myself through the fire and smoke”, she sings, before the song builds to a cathartic outpouring made for the karaoke booth or a teenage bedroom.
It’s all gratifyingly emo and unwaveringly defiant. “Bad Karma” is one of the best and catchiest tracks, with each line of the verses interspersed with stroppy “uh-uh”s. Again, Cyrus sounds like she is storming an open-mic night having just emerged from months in the desert, as she growls “I don’t give a fuck, I don’t believe in love”. She’s like a wild aunt, or the best friend you never had – and whether or not she’s finally found herself, there’s plenty to enjoy in going along for the ride.