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“I've always picked a giver, 'cause I've always been the taker,” sings Miley Cyrus as she and her then-husband Liam Hemsworth drive to the 2019 Met Gala. The snippet of the song playing through the speakers was ‘Bad Karma,’ a track which would have been part of a three-part EP series, She Is Coming, She Is Here, and She Is Everything. Cyrus and her team eventually scrapped the concept for the trilogy after deciding they were longer timely, and Miley has since said, “When you write a record, a lot of the time, you're writing your experiences, and then by the time the record comes out, you've evolved past that experience." But this track, which is heavily Hemsworth-inspired, survived the fires (literally and figuratively) and takes on a new context in the 2020 fallout of their marriage, and its rightful place alongside Joan Jett on Miley’s new album Plastic Hearts.
Cyrus, who has through her career worn more faces than many of her contemporaries, tends to evolve or change with each record cycle. And though she is far from the first female pop star (see Bangerz collaborator Madonna, or should I say Madame X) she does so in a uniquely-Miley way, that always leaves audiences wondering, “who is the real Miley.” Though Plastic Hearts may not offer a definitive explanation, it may be the closest we have gotten, and it seems that at her core Cyrus is an 80s Glam-Rocker, a style which fits her more effortlessly than a Country Crooner, or Disney Factory Starlet.
A through-line of rock has always been a constant through Miley’s career, and she has always hinted at her influences giving confused fans covers of ‘Why'd You Only Call Me When You're High?’ in her 2014 Bangerz era or on her karaoke-tinged cover of ‘Every Rose Has its Thorn’ which somehow found its way onto her third studio album ‘Can’t Be Tamed.’ But these attempts fell flat for the ‘Younger Now’ singer, she still had a lot more growing to do, and the songs on 2020’s Plastic Heart show just how much growth she has experienced as a musician. In late 2019 she received vocal chord surgery and what fans heard next was a different huskier-toned Cyrus, a deeper voice with all the same pathos. The siren song of the album, ‘Midnight Sky,’ dropped in August and announced, with the assistance of a series of rock covers (Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass,’ and The Cranberries ‘Zombie’ which are tacked on to the album release for good measure) and a new gruffer voice, that Cyrus’ “rock era” had begun.
Songs like opening track ‘WTF Do I Know,’ a song which is being called “Hannah Montana all grown up,” may seem a bit like hamfisted cosplay, a 28-year-old’s idea of “rock music,” but somehow the pastiche is less of set dressing for many of these cuts, and more integral to the music itself. Cyrus finds a way to take several disjointed tracks and turn them into a cohesive body of work, like a collection of greatest hits of a bygone Glam Rocker who has gone through several eras of her own. And there is no question of authenticity (a concept which has plagued rock musicians, specifically those of a certain sex) as Cyrus collaborates with several substantial heavy-hitters like Billy Idol, Joan Jett, and of course Stevie Nicks.
She is at her best on songs like ‘Never Be Me’ a stadium-sized ballad the likes of which would have been impossible for her to pull off in 2013, or on the country-tinged Mark Ronson penned ‘High’ t hat offers some of her best writing “And you, like a rolling stone, Always building cities on the hearts that you broke,” a stark contrast to the 2019 jumble of ‘Cattitude’ where she sing-raps clumsily, “Turn up your gratitude, turn down your attitude, I love my pussy, that means I got cattitude.” The album is not without its misses though, the second single ‘Prisoner’ featuring fellow retro-looking musician Dua Lipa feels like an awkward little sister on the tracklist, and ‘Golden G String,’ for all its retrospection falls a little flat— not quite cutting as deep as it postures to.
This alone is not enough to diminish the accomplishments on this album, Cyrus could have easily pumped out a by-the-numbers pop album, and if She is Coming is any indication she was on track to, but instead she honored an aspect of her musicianship that could be seen as less marketable or market-friendly. She has never shied away from taking big swings, and though those may have led to big misses on her last three commercial works, her efforts on Plastic Hearts seems to have finally paid off and the album has already topped Billboard's Rock Album chart, debuting at No. 1. Is the album perfect? no, but if this is the direction Cyrus is taking her career in, then I for one am very excited to continue to see where she takes her music next.