Miley Cyrus is a marvel. A shapeshifter in the vein of Madonna, Miley has had countless career reinventions and renaissances. From defining a generation with her Hannah Montana albums to delivering pivotal teen pop moments with Breakout and Can’t Be Tamed, Miley has been a pop culture and music fixture for her whole life. But that barely covers half of her career. From the controversial hip-hop-influenced Bangerz and the trippy alternative dreamworld of Dead Petz to the country homecoming of Younger Now and the self-assured confidence of She Is Coming, Miley has essentially been a new artist every album. However, while the branding and overall sound of each record are markedly different from the last, these are all the same Miley. At the core of each record is an artist who is constantly evolving and challenging herself and reshaping her influences into something unique for herself. The essence of every Miley Cyrus record is her voice. That surprisingly mature voice with a gravelly texture that lends itself well to a bit of rasp. It’s a voice that couldn’t run away from country music even if it really wanted to. Miley’s voice has evolved over the years into this relatively deeper combination of rock and country music influences that can still swagger over a Mike Will Made-It beat, soar across the most emotional ballads, and do whatever the hell Miley feels like doing. It’s this voice that grounds Plastic Hearts, her seventh, and best, studio album.
Introduced by the fantastic Stevie Nicks-sampling “Midnight Sky,” Plastic Hearts dives headfirst into 80s pop, glam rock, and classic country to deliver a revelatory and honest record about the complexities of deteriorating relationships. Often songs will condense these complexities into three-minute motivational anthems of triumph. On Plastic Hearts, Miley delves into the difficulty of being honest with herself, the intoxicating nature of unhealthy relationships, the art of letting love go, and questions of fame, desire, and mortality. With some assistance from Andrew Watt, Mark Ronson, Joan Jett, Billy Idol, and Dua Lipa, Miley has created the most cohesive record of her career so far. On past records, it felt as if Miley was just scraping the surface of the album she was born to make. Every record leading up to Plastic Hearts was a different shade of her. While some imitated vulnerability better than others, Plastic Hearts is the most genuine Miley has ever been on an album. Through clear songwriting and incredible vocal performances, Miley shares a part of her soul with us like she’s never done before.
“WTF Do I Know” just maybe the best full-length album opener of the year. Miley is never afraid to get personal and specific on tracks (just listen to last year’s “Slide Away”), and on “WTF” she continues that trend. Over a chunky bassline and handclaps, Miley sings about being “completely naked” (hello, “Wrecking Ball!”) and “getting married just to cause a distraction.” It’s the soaring chorus, which is anchored by slick lower harmonies and a rhetorical question, that cements the song as the grown-up version of a Hannah Montana track. There’s a contentedness that Miley exudes in this song; she is aware that she hasn’t figured everything out yet, and she is okay with that. While there is an unmistakable pop sheen that coats the record, Plastic Hearts is heavily influenced by rock. The title track’s opening is slightly reminiscent of The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” The allusion is smart as both songs explore humanity’s flaws. The Stones track is more ambitious as it is literally sung from Satan’s perspective, but that’s not to discount the way Miley digs into the superficiality of California on “Plastic Hearts.” The song mixes elements of blues, punk, pop, and rock into one winner of a title track.
An early standout on a cohesive album, “Angels Like You” is a soaring ballad rooted in classic country music. The instrumentation here is relatively sparse which allows Miley’s voice to take center stage. Her emotive vocal performance blends notes of guilt, melancholy, wistfulness, and pride into a gorgeous chorus that ends in this heartbreaking line: “Baby, angels like you can’t fly down here with me.” Moreover, the slight twang in her voice plays well against the swelling strings in the final chorus. “Angels Like You” is a companion of sorts to two other songs on Plastic Hearts: “High,” another standout ballad, and “Prisoner,” the album’s latest radio single. Where “Angels Like You” sees Miley maturing and letting go of love that she believes that she does not deserve, “High” sees her struggling to latch on to her deserved freedom from a toxic relationship. In the chorus, she sings, “And in my head, I did my very best saying goodbye, goodbye/And I don’t miss you, but I think of you and don’t know why.” Again, Miley’s country music foundation shines through her voice. She reaches this gorgeous convergence of rasp and twang that results in a vocal performance literally straining from the heft of the emotion Miley is putting in. As for “Prisoner,” the Dua Lipa-assisted track sees the two pop divas longing for a way out of a relationship with a lover that is intent on holding them captive. Miley may have been letting go of love on “Angels Like You,” but on “Prisoner” she is the one longing to be let go. The two songs are placed next to each other on the tracklist making for a slick juxtaposition in terms of sound and content. The bouncy synths and drums of “Prisoner” are most akin to the production on “Midnight Sky,” which still sounds just as great as it did when it dropped back in August. Both songs sample 1980s pop hits (Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” for “Prisoner” and Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen” for “Midnight Sky”), which makes them infinitely more suitable for Top 40 radio. More importantly, the songs offer a different taste of the 80s influences that inform the album.
Two 80s rock legends join Miley on the album: Billy Idol and Joan Jett. Idol guests on “Night Crawling” a glam rock-influenced track that stops short of being a true headbanger. The beginning of the chorus promises something grander, but the end result is nothing to scoff at. Joan Jett’s appearance on “Bad Karma” elevates the song from a solid tribute to a sly updated version of her sound. The swaggering self-assuredness of the lyrics (“They say it’s bad karma being such a heartbreaker/I’ve always picked a giver ’cause I’ve always been the taker”) recall the attitude of Bangerz and She Is Coming, and the two ladies work well together. The legacy of Miley’s previous albums appear throughout Plastic Hearts, especially on the Britney Spears-sampling “Gimme What I Want.” This track, which samples Spears’ classic “Gimme More,” leans into the electro-rock influence Cyrus first teased on “See You Again” and “Fly On The Wall” from 2008’s Breakout. In the chorus, Miley’s delivery smartly plays with enjambment which creates a double meaning for the word “self”; “So gimme what I want or I’ll give it to my/Self-inflicted torture, you don’t have to ask.” On “Never Be Me,” Miley delivers a somber and steadfast rejection of the expectations past lovers have projected onto her. The gut-wrenching lyrics (“But if you’re looking for stable, that’ll never be me/If you’re looking for faithful, that’ll never be me”) anchor the track, but it is the beautiful, and distinctly 80s-influenced, melody that holds it all together.
Most of Plastic Hearts is concerned with working through romantic relationships, but Miley does find some time to get a bit existential. On “Hate Me” she ponders if the day of her death will be the day the media finally leaves her alone and is somewhat kind to her. “Golden G String” sees Miley getting political as she croons “Oh, that’s just the world that we’re livin’ in/The old boys hold all the cards and they ain’t playin’ gin/You dare to call me crazy, have you looked around this place?” These two songs offer some necessary color and character to the album’s thematic center while also providing relatively softer moments of balladry before the trio of high-energy covers that close out the album (“Edge of Midnight,” “Zombie,” and “Heart of Glass”). The inclusion of those covers are more than welcome, but they do make a strong argument for Miley scrapping all of Plastic Heart‘s pop moments and going full-throttle rock n roll. Plastic Hearts is a career best, but knowing Miley, she’ll come back with a brand new sound and an even better album next time and that’s what makes her such an exciting artist.
Key Tracks: “WTF Do I Know” | “Angels Like You” | “Never Be Me” | “High” | “Gimme What I Want”