Perhaps no mainstream pop artist of recent years has had a more chequered journey to their destination than Miley Cyrus. The daughter of country-pop royalty (or perhaps jester would be a better word), she found fame at a young age as a teen idol and TV actor, before incensing the world by going through puberty and discovering sex. Her remodelling as a would-be sex symbol in the early 2010s was divisive, read by some as an attempt to regain autonomy over her life and body from the press (Lady Gaga, “Do What You Want” style) and as others as a shameless attempt to be shocking while pandering to the male gaze (thanks Robin Thicke, God music in 2013 was nuts!). This reshaping continued with possibly the most anti-commercial move of any artist on her level, her ninety-minute-long dream-pop album Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz, which had absolutely no appeal to anyone and she gave away for free anyway.
She returned to the limelight somewhat with a more tasteful return to country-pop, following the path carved by Lady Gaga’s Joanne on Younger Now. Despite the quality of some parts of the album (“Younger Now” and “Malibu” are some of the best songs of Miley’s career), it was an inconsistent release that didn’t have the attention-grabbing spirit of the Bangerz era. If Miley was to return to the mainstream, she was going to need something bold and in 2019 she announced her forthcoming album She is Miley Cyrus, teasing it with an EP demonstrating her new direction: She is Coming (as it happens, She is Coming was the first piece of music I ever wrote a full review of). She is Coming was indeed a bold fusion of trap, pop, country, dream pop and hip-house, but the execution was messy, to say the least. Now, I liked it a lot as it happens, but reception was not all that positive, not to mention the tumultuous year Miley had in 2019 (including not only her divorce but her house burning down), and in the wake of this, it seems She is Miley Cyrus was quietly scrapped.
However, Miley has proven that she’s here for the long haul and earlier this year she finally seemed to discover a direction that might take her back to relevance. The predominant new trend in the pop music of 2020, trailblazed by artists like Dua Lipa, The Weeknd and Lady Gaga (again), has been a resurgence of maximalist, glamorous new wave pop, rock and disco. Miley, therefore, grew out her mullet and came back with a new direction with “Midnight Sky”, a Debbie Harry style nocturnal glam rock dance bop, and the rest, it seems, was kind of history. Initially I considered “Midnight Sky” to be a fairly shameless copy of The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights”, but it was her cover of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” that really sold me on the latest iteration of Miley Cyrus. This kind of power-pop and glam rock fits Miley perfectly, her strangled but keen and smoky voice cries out for a sultry bassline and propulsive diva chorus and that’s exactly what she finds with “Midnight Sky”.
Plastic Hearts, the album that followed isn’t one hundred per cent new wave pop though, it’s actually a fairly diverse track-list with its influences worn clearly on its sleeve. Miley takes us on a bit of a tour of the women of rock from the 70s to the early 90s, recruiting veterans Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Billy Idol and Stevie Nicks and current torch bearer Dua Lipa, to cover artists like Blondie and The Cranberries. These latter songs appear as virtual bonus tracks, coming after what feels like the album’s official closer “Golden G String”, where Miley reflects on her days as a tawdry headliner. This is one of a few moments, also including “Never Be Me” or “Hate Me” where Miley’s country inflexions resurge, making a tasteful and maudlin mixture. Her voice does sound a little more exposed at these moments, but the songs are sound enough to keep them on an even keel.
The album’s second single came in the form of the Dua Lipa duet “Prisoner”. Dua, of course, kills her parts with her usual effortless charisma and dexterity, but she and Miley have a shocking amount of chemistry on the track, combining her funky polish and glamour with Miley’s rowdiness and rawness. She sounds equally at home jamming with all her collaborators here, every one of whom has been perfectly selected and used. Cyrus’s big and rough voice becomes an asset when slipping into a genre that prioritises pain and danger, and the glam-punk vibe of tracks like “Gimme What I Want” are a natural fit, especially when dissecting her personal angst on many tracks here. She can also make her voice phenomenally sexy as on her sultry grunting on the track “Bad Karma”.
From the personal raging country-rock of “WTF Do I Know” to the slick, gloomy and decadent cyberpunk of “Night Crawling”, the highlights come thick and fast on Plastic Hearts, Miley truly seems to be in her element and makes the most of her moment, spoiler her audience with earworm melodies and surprisingly sharp lyrical songwriting. Areas like the production that have previously let her down are kept a close eye on, with credits to the likes of the Wyatts and Mark Ronson with whom Miley worked previously on the terrific single “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart” and guest songwriters Majid Jordan and Ryan Tedder of One Republic ensure the choruses all pop. The only real low comes with the Cranberries cover “Zombie”. There’s nothing really wrong with her version of it, it’s just that “Zombie” is a song so dependent on the context of its release that any cover version is almost pointless.
That one small reservation aside, I must admit that even as someone who has always been a Miley Cyrus defender, even I was shocked by just how solid and legitimate a move this has turned out to be. Throughout the fifteen tracks of Plastic Hearts I kept waiting for her to miss and she never really did. It remains to be seen how the public will embrace this retro direction, but there’s little doubt that Plastic Hearts is an indisputable creative and artistic high-point in Miley’s career and one of the most surprising highlights of the year.