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This is the album I was born to make, says Miley Cyrus of her latest, Plastic Hearts. Invoking that tiresome, clichéd phrase is what artists tend to do when their career is lagging — except, in the case of Plastic Hearts, it’s actually true. It’s not that Cyrus has been lagging, per se, it’s more that she’s been desperately searching, casting about for a sense of self. And, like many a lost young person before her, she has finally found that center in the sweet embrace of rock and roll. Plastic Hearts is decidedly not a pop record, it doesn’t even try to be, and perhaps for some fans, that transition won’t take. Those fans can kindly kiss Miley’s ass.
There have been so many iterations of Cyrus that it’s easy to eye-roll when a new edition is unveiled. From the squeaky clean, tween Hannah Montana empire — which produced her three earliest, toothless albums — to the twerking Bangerz star pillaging rap for beats and weed, to the flailing, absurdist theatrics of Dead Petz, to the re-sanitized, hip-hop rejecting rainbowland of Younger Now, to the drugs-and-rap-are-good-actually posturing of last year’s She Is Coming EP, Miley has worn out her welcome when it comes to reinvention. But she’s rarely been the kind of star to let other people’s opinions dictate her behavior.
After a wildfire burned down her home in Malibu, and with it, most of the music she’d recorded for an announced three-EP release, a messy public divorce came on the heels of a surprise wedding to long-term boyfriend Liam Hemsworth, and an obsession with Miley’s sexuality and infidelity dominated headlines. It’s easy to see why the sound and fury of rock music captured her imagination. And yes, she’s moved from teen pop, to hip-hop, to country pop, and is now jumping to rock — but isn’t that the same way most of her generation consumes music, too? The sometimes-suffocating ideas this culture has about artists sticking to one genre or one sound, and the mild uproar that occurs when they pivot (recently, see: Machine Gun Kelly) is growing rather tiresome.
Or, maybe this most recent pivot wouldn’t be worth defending if Miley hadn’t pulled it off so dang well. Will you accept a great rock album, even if it was made by a former pop star? Only a fool would look this gift horse in the mouth. Plastic Hearts is finally covering the ground listeners want to hear her speak on, with apologetic and reflective songs that no longer shirk topics like cheating, sex, and celebrity. Album opener “WTF Do I Know” sets the tone as an unapologetic divorce anthem anchored by a growling bassline, and even if the title track wastes perfect percussion, “Angels Like You” quickly shifts the blame back to herself for a Joanne-indebted ballad that soars like “Wrecking Ball” once did.
The Dua Lipa-featuring “Prisoner” slips right into the album’s careening ’70s glam-rock theme, but might be the most pop-oriented song of the bunch, and her next collab, with Billy Idol, is an unlikely success. That track, “Night Crawling,” and her final feature, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, turn out to be more than empty rockstar name grabs. Instead, the synths and ferocity of the former make it one of the best songs here, and “Bad Karma” with Joan turns an orgasmic vocal sample into the ultimate f*ck-you riff. No, it’s true — largely because Mark Ronson helps shepherd this potential trainwreck into a purring locomotive.
Miley doesn’t need any fellow stars to pull off great rock hits, either, “Gimme What I Want,” “High,” and “Hate Me” are textured, bluesy explorations of reclaimed sexuality, grief, loss, and yes, lingering guilt. All the latent aggression that has driven some of Miley’s most antagonistic, erratic behavior in the past is fully unleashed, and so is the sadness that anger actually stems from. The combination of those two extremes of course make for great rock songs, and her voice is maybe better-suited to the growling and preening of rock than detractors realized. Closer “Golden G String” is a great example, a song that seems like it could be a kiss-off to those who have lit into her for flaunting her body, but instead it’s a serious reflection on shame, mental illness, and sexism that evokes Kesha during her own Rainbow phase.
There isn’t a lot else here to rope lead single “Midnight Sky” into the mix, but the groundwork for a Miley disco-country album was set back in 2018 with “Nothing Breaks Like A Heart,” even if her work with Ronson on Plastic Hearts leans more gospel than glitz (“High,” “Never Be Me). Instead, a series of covers at the end of the record include a Stevie Nicks-featuring “Midnight Sky” remix interpolating “Edge Of Seventeen” for “Edge Of Midnight,” and renditions of “Heart Of Glass” and “Zombie,” rather obvious codas for where Miley wants to position this album in the rock landscape.
But avid listeners of ‘70s rock might find themselves asking, as much as Nicks, Debbie Harry, and Dolores O’Riordan are aspirational figures, wouldn’t incorporating a little of the Wilson sisters and Heart make this new Miley era stick better? “Barracuda” would be a superior fit for her range and ethos, and “Crazy On You” is long overdue for a resurgence in popularity. If she’s going to stick around in this era for another album, I hope she really digs in, and that’s my only real critique. Back to the present, standout “Hate Me” dips into contemporary ‘90s grunge-pop a la Liz Phair, and pulls it off well enough to suggest she should explore that era more, too. On this song, Miley ponders what her funeral would be like, if her friends would party and celebrate her life, and if an unnamed entity would, for once, not hate her. Whether addressed specifically to Liam, another ex, or the public at large, the song gives a fascinating glance into Miley’s psyche: We’ll miss her when she’s not around. Best enjoy her while she’s still here.
Plastic Hearts is out now via RCA Records. Get it here.