album review

Miley’s Californication Is Complete

She gets how to attract and how to provoke a crowd — how to craft party anthems and tear-jerkers and head-scratchers — and she’s choosing to bring these narratives to upbeat conclusions. Photo: Vijat Mohindra/NBC

Miley Cyrus spent the last decade on the run from her own perception, shape-shifting her way in and out of fantastic achievements and exacting dilemmas, going to great lengths to express that she knew how to party in the years when everyone had her pegged as the squeaky-clean Disney kid; and then, when that posturing started to rub people the wrong way, diving into a psychedelic rabbit hole with the Flaming Lips. Ever eager to prove to us how delightfully weird or reassuringly trad she is from one era to the next, she felt calculated and hard to pin down, musically, which perfectly suited a pop career full of surprises but also rose suspicions about her intentions as a visitor in the far-reaching subgenres her albums wandered through. A good bit of that drift is perfectly germane to sticking a microphone in anyone’s face at various points in their 20s and teens, years where we figure ourselves out one mistake at a time.

But some of it seemed to communicate that Miley simply thrives on throwing us off and winning us over again. Last spring’s Attention: Miley Live — largely a document of her performance at the 2022 Super Bowl Music Fest — offered a clinic in the singer-songwriter’s dueling urges to impress and confuse a crowd. After a jarring opening stretch zooming through a mashup of Bangerz’s “We Can’t Stop” and the Pixies’ 1988 alt-rock gem “Where Is My Mind?,” a cover of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” a bit of the Flaming Lips collab “Dooo It!,” and a rendition of her Wiz Khalifa and Juicy J collab “23,” Cyrus paused to address the audience, joking that surely many of them had shown up a little too early for headliner Green Day and happened into the spectacle of her set. She thanked fans for bearing with “all of those identities that I was trying on and seeing if they fit me,” stressing that at the root of every experiment was honesty.

You could respect the mind connecting the dots between Madonna, Cher, Dolly Parton, and Sinéad O’Connor, women who continue to catch hell for provocative fashion, lyrics, personal lives, and politics. It’s just dicey positioning a seven-minute “Party in the U.S.A.” in that lineage. Miley Cyrus has been working for years to thread her interests in pop, rock, rap, country, and dance music, to make something only her palette of experiences and sensibilities could come up with, to varying degrees of success. The kookier country-rap Bangerz tracks get there; bringing a roots-rock rasp to the New Wave jams on Plastic Hearts was another savvy act of alluring juxtaposition. The best arguments for the merits of Miley’s musical molting occur during her Backyard Sessions series, where the breadth of her interests and connections set the scene for effortless fun like a cozy, costumed 2015 duet with Ariana Grande on New Zealand rockers Crowded House’s ’86 hit “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” or the smoky take from 2020’s MTV Unplugged Presents: Miley Cyrus Backyard Sessions on the Velvet Underground’s 1969 gem “Sweet Jane” that plays up the spectral vocal affectations of the 1988 Cowboy Junkies cover on the way to a booming climax. Those moments reveal a preternaturally gifted vocalist just leaning into the possibilities her instrument offers, while cruising through the back pages of music history.

Backyard Sessions plays an integral part in Miley’s newest evolution, another concerted push toward tying the disparate threads of her career together. This year’s iteration, Miley Cyrus – Endless Summer Vacation (Backyard Sessions), is a Disney+ affair. Returning to the fold all these years after Hannah Montana, brunette roots and locks symbolically overtaking a platinum-blonde outcrop, in it the singer calls Endless Summer Vacation, her eighth studio album, a “Cinderella shoe,” a vehicle designed expressly to fit her. Pulling in friends from different creative fields — Americana troubadour Brandi Carlile, trap producer Mike WiLL Made-It, Gummo and Spring Breakers director Harmony Korine, Harry Styles collaborators Kid Harpoon and Tyler Johnson, and Liily drummer Maxx Morando, whom Cyrus is currently dating — and eschewing the expected tension and twists for slicker transitions, Vacation charts a careful course through sounds this star’s catalogue tends to cordon off on different projects.

At its strongest, the album finds the artist evaluating her complexities as she talks herself into having fun again after divorcing actor Liam Hemsworth, moving on via painful tunes like the Carlile duet “Thousand Miles.” It’s a storm of pop-country licks, gossamer synths, and grizzled maturity that took some exquisite fuck-ups over the years to arrive at: “I’m not always right, but still I ain’t got time for what went wrong / Where I end up, I don’t really care,” she sings. In the special, Cyrus reveals that the song was written in the wake of the death of a friend’s sister, tearfully sharing its devastating original first verse. But her pop-star instincts reactivate as she dabs her eyes and looks into the camera: “My makeup still beat?” Vacation showcases a more unified and refined version of Miley, but it is also very meticulously crafted to soundtrack summers, an ambition that sometimes overrides its moodier sentiments.

Miley’s idyllic Summer is a latticework of vibrant sensory information, breezes blowing on L.A. palm trees, loud colors, and warbling flange and chorus effects on bright guitar and synthesizer notes. The crackle of a vinyl record and the phase modulated guitar noodles introducing Vacation and the international smash “Flowers” signal an attention to the small details that the album maintains in its commitment to conjuring the sweat-flecked physicality of the warmest season and the classic pop music that has been made about it. The detuned guitars in the sad song “Jaded” mirror both the sweltering heaviness of heatwaves and the sound of the Doppler effect making notes appear to bend as music blares out from cars zooming past us. Summer is smoldering anticipation, Vacation insinuates through dance-pop jams like “River” and “Violet Chemistry” and pop-rock confections like “Rose Colored Lenses,” whose excitement about a new flame explodes into a free-jazz saxophone solo that constitutes one of the most exhilarating minutes of music in this singer-songwriter’s catalogue.

The album approaches the titular subject from two angles, touching on finding romance after heartbreak in its informal “AM” section and cycling through dance-floor reverie and late-night introspection in the “PM” half. Like Taylor Swift’s Midnights, Endless Summer Vacation peeks back in on older incarnations of Miley in a bid to show how much she’s grown. “Thousand Miles” pairs hip-hop drum patterns and country-pop sensibilities with greater restraint than Bangerz dared; the way “River” tiptoes around the melody from Dead or Alive’s synth-pop hit “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” (and also Lizzo’s “About Damn Time”), as well as the glint of “I Will Survive” on “Flowers,” are evidence that the spirited anachronisms of Plastic Hearts endure even when Vacation wrenches the dial back toward the sleek, businesslike pure pop the singer was selling around 2009’s The Time of Our Lives and 2010’s Can’t Be Tamed.

The sound is pliable and chewy, and the lyrics are unpretentious, both to our benefit and to our detriment, depending on the turn of phrase. They cut to the quick but this subjects them to cliché. The “Jaded” ex is lonely, and she “hates it,” and the T-shirt she kept is “faded.” “Island,” the gooey retro pop ballad that Backyard Sessions frames as an analogy grasping at the isolating experience of fame, loses sight of that message the better the tropical groove and the evocative chorus — “Am I stranded on an island / or have I landed in paradise?” — mesh, and you wonder whether or not we’re really talking about pouting on private beaches. “Muddy Feet” with Sia wields its conversational lyrics like weapons: “I don’t know / Who the hell you think you’re messin’ with / Get the fuck out of my house with that shit / Get the fuck out of my life with that shit.” “Handstand,” with Korine and Morando, stages an uneven experiment, a pile of pleasing tones paired with a lyric sheet that reads like a spicy trip diary, the slight return of the kind of psychedelic impulsiveness the Dead Petz era hedged its bets on. “River,” a stream of sensual water images, is more intriguing as a tacit admission that many people still crave bubbly dance music from this artist than it is as a racy love song, though the explanation of the motives behind it — “They don’t want me to talk about how the fact the song is about [bleep]” — in the Disney+ special is one of a few moments where you see Miley delight in the potential of pushing buttons, although “Handstand” and “Muddy Feet” don’t make the broadcast.

She gets how to attract and how to provoke a crowd — zeroing in on an album lyric likening soaked bed sheets to “sticky, sweet lemonade,” Cyrus tells the viewer, “You know, you can kinda taste it” — how to craft party anthems and tear-jerkers and head-scratchers, and she’s choosing to bring these narratives to upbeat conclusions, to plant “Rose Colored Lenses” on the listener and sing of endless summer romance and feisty L.A. nights. (And that’s why “Flowers” is raking in the chips, right? It says, “Whatever that shit was, it sucked, but it’s behind us now, and we’re free to try something new.” It’s the same brand of nonspecific, aspirational song of perseverance as Harry’s House’s “As It Was” — no wonder that team is here.) The approach is earning Miley record-breaking streaming weeks; you wonder how long it’ll be before she gets bored of it.

Miley’s Californication Is Complete