If any artist swings counter to the idea that narrative is everything, it’s Miley Cyrus. Poised to release her sixth full-length, Younger Now, at the end of this week (Sept. 29) — after multiple changes of musical identity at just 24 — she hasn’t necessarily made her best albums during the height of her making headlines.
We’re talking about Bangerz of course, the hit 2013 hodgepodge that spawned her biggest smashes (“We Can’t Stop,” “Wrecking Ball”) and made everyone uncomfortable at the same time. That album had its charms, particularly on the singles and deep cuts like “FU” and “My Darlin’,” because it’s hard to (respectively) resist either a Disney Channel breakout queen embracing profanity over a damning “I Put a Spell on You”-style waltz, or the timeless four chords of “Stand by Me.” But even the aforementioned hits have a certain stiffness to them, and Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz — the Flaming Lips-helmed follow-up from 2015 — grapples with the line between charming and ramshackle throughout its many, many experimental tunes.
The person who Miley Cyrus is may actually work best with good old Wonder Bread pop-rock tunes, as her pair of beauteous new singles, “Younger Now” and “Malibu,” indicate in their blessedly beige way. Someday she’ll likely write a powerful statement as a sex symbol, but 2010’s somewhat awkward “Can’t Be Tamed” wasn’t quite there yet. Her biggest song prior to her rebellious period, “Party in the U.S.A.,” engaged with funk in an honest way; it’s more important to the vibe that she felt a Jay-Z song in the air, even if she couldn’t say which.
But “Younger Now” and “Malibu” are her best songs in years, because normalcy comes naturally to her, even as a genderfluid, weed-mainlining provocateur. Cyrus’ robust mezzo-soprano soars past the verses to fill the canyons that the choruses open up, just like good Stevie Nicks anthems, to name but one retro-reference with whom she shares a powerful rasp. The rich harmonies are a generous gift to the current charts. And she doesn’t have to do much else; these tunes sound like they’ve been lying around forever waiting for her to inflate life into them, bearing little obvious overlap with the contemporary pop mainstream that Miley not that long ago helped to define.
Nearly a decade ago, “pop-rock” was still a category that an MTV star could be in, though, and Cyrus’ 2008 album Breakout was from a simpler time, devoid of thinkpiece fodder or teachable moments. Younger Now comes full circle and may give Breakout its proper follow-up, though it’s going to be slower. Breakout’s final third is a bit too dominated by ballads, but the rest of it is shiny dynamite. The opening title tune is pure exuberance that vows to “dance ‘til the dance floor falls apart” and sets off five flawless exercises in mallrat bubblegum from there. “The Driveway” is named for where a teen romance meets the end of the road, while the whipping “Full Circle” tries to put it in reverse. “Fly on the Wall” taunts the paparazzi over a diet-Britney electrobeat. And then there are its two works of genius.
“7 Things” was Breakout’s big hit, a high-school relationship rollercoaster recap that could have only come from someone with sitcom-trained timing. It folds Lennon-esque “shock!” ad libs into a rollicking acoustic strum for sweet verses that tear into sour choruses about how that boy drives her completely nuts. Then just when things aren’t looking good, Cyrus returns listing all the things she likes about him. It’s both melodramatic and semi-realist, completely acting its age (which was 16 at the time) and knowing a bit beyond its years as well. Teen pop has rarely sounded this “teen” in the years since, and Cyrus’ vocal tugs at all the right strings. It could only be topped by one thing.
“Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” is inarguably one of the greatest pop songs even formulated by humans, but do yourself a favor and don’t back-to-back Cyndi Lauper’s beyond-classic original with Cyrus’ full-throttle remake. Faster, more rock’n’roll and amped up with the punch of of the sort of brilliant string stabs that normally raise a disco jam to the sky, Cyrus’ version gives the vocal performance of a lifetime to match. Even if it’s not better than Lauper’s unassailable blueprint, the Miley version will shake your confidence in sacred cows, at the very least. It does exactly what a cover should: breathes new life into a tune you thought you couldn’t possibly know new things about. Whichever version you prefer, Cyrus’ update will only help you appreciate the song more.
From there, Breakout dips into some interchangeable tracks but never any bad ones, and is taken out by a high-powered RockMafia remix of “See You Again,” another of her best tunes that pleases mightily in any context. But it’s also got the visionary “Wake Up America,” a corny-as-it-is-cute plea for us to reduce our carbon footprint that was just self-aware enough to work: “I know that you don’t wanna hear it / Especially not from someone so young,” she sang, already a budding Al Gore who enjoyed bud way more. These songs moved like an arena-rock band fronted by a teenage Pat Benatar, with hammering drum fills and synth accents aplenty. They actually rocked.
Younger Now is unlikely to do much of that, and the advance singles are as short on those kinds of dynamics as most 2017 pop. But the Miley Cyrus of 2017 is recognizable to the Miley Cyrus of 2008, who knew a good tune when she heard one and belted it out ‘til the dance floor fell apart. Uh oh, all over again.