Miley Cyrus Leaves Pop Behind (For Now) on 'Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz': Album Review

Miley Cyrus
Album Review
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Courtesy Photo

The advent of unexpected album releases over the past decade has given way to the emergence of unexpectedly experimental projects from some of the music industry’s elite talents. There has long been a divide between music that’s “album quality” and songs that are “mixtape quality” — or at least, there’s a differentiation in the general expectation of casual consumers — but the surprise-release strategy has given way to a movement more substantial than rappers saving their best beats for their proper album and weirdest interpolations for their mixtape. Declining album sales has made the full-length release cycle far more pliable, which has in turn made some major artists question the need for an extended rollout and a radio single used as the lynchpin for that rollout.

It’s no coincidence that Beyonce’s surprise-released self-titled album was by far her most exploratory, or that Drake’s If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late fell out of the sky last February with nary a pop hook on its track list. The changing industry has allowed A-list artists to tear up the commercial checklist, so to speak, and experiment with their sounds in a way that relies completely on name recognition instead of (negligible) album sales.

That brings us to Miley Cyrus, who could not have made the album Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz if the industry were the same as it was 15 years ago. Or, she could have made this album, but it would have been quickly regarded as career suicide.

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Following the enormous success of 2013’s Bangerz — an album that lifted the former Disney star from the flames of her Can’t Be Tamed project and allowed to rise, phoenix-like, into arena headliner status — Cyrus has made a 23-song, purposely strange psych-rock record with Wayne Coyne and the rest of the Flaming Lips. There’s a lot of drug references, open paeans to her deceased dog and lines like “I want it so hard/You finger my heart,” on songs like “Bang Me Box.” It’s as if Cyrus is addressing the parents put off by her twerk-happy antics during her Bangerz run: You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

Because Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz is a free album Cyrus surprise-released and does not represent part of her multi-album RCA deal, however, it is not viewed as a proper follow-up to Bangerz, and no Hot 100 expectations should be placed upon any of these songs. This is a passion project, not a pop project; this is Cyrus’ Full Frontal right after she made her Ocean’s Eleven. So take Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz with all the grains of salt you need, and enjoy it as the work of an artist who, rather admirably, will not be bound to the post-teen pop stardom she inherited less than two years ago.

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Make no mistake, some of this album is unlistenable. The goofy interludes allow Cyrus to curse and declare that she is drunk, and little more. “Milky Milky Milk” sounds like it was recorded in an X-rated version of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, with wacky sound effects accompanying lines like “Your tongue milking me so hard/And from sucking on your nipples/Licking milky, milky stars.” There’s a semblance of a flow to the record’s sprawling track list, but too many songs sound hastily written, and too often Cyrus acts as if her drug trip is more poignant than the average freakout. It’s hard to fault Cyrus for throwing her most unhinged ideas into a deliberately bizarre, free album, but those thoughts are often uneasy to digest.

But Cyrus is also too skilled of an artist to not place some beauty inside this madness, and Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz swerves into thoughtful territory when it’s least expected. In the first half of the record especially, the utilization of Coyne and co. produces some of the best Flaming Lips songs since 2009’s Embryonic: “Karen Don’t Be Sad” is an absolute stunner of a ballad, with Cyrus’ vocal delivery directly recalling Coyne’s gentle rasp over a spacey, acoustic-led arrangement. On “Tiger Dreams,” Ariel Pink stops by to help Cyrus put on her best Karen O costume, in a surprisingly effective art-rock display of emotional desperation.

And Mike WiLL Made-It is back in the fold after helping Cyrus engineer her “We Can’t Stop” comeback; his contributions here are hit-and-miss, but “Lighter” is one of his most intricate productions to date, a blinking R&B strut with masterful percussion and a lush array of synthesizer. “When I need the fire, you’re always my lighter,” Cyrus sings, unpacking one of the album’s most straightforward choruses before moving on to more prolonged musings about love and other drugs.

After Bangerz made her one of the most sought-after artists on the planet, Cyrus has steered herself away from another big pop project — simply because she can, maybe. “That’s what I’ve got the luxury to do,” she recently told the New York Times. “I can just do what I want to do, and make the music I want to make.” Most likely, Cyrus will return to big-budget pop music and embark on another arena tour, but the music of this detour is a lot like Miley herself: messy, imperfect, provocative and entertaining. This is her party; she can do what she want. Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz is not a proper party invitation, but Cyrus will allow her fans to sneak in through the back door and light up alongside her.