After eight albums and nearly two decades since we were first introduced to her – despite the fact that she’s still only thirty – we know that there’s almost nobody who can compare to Miley Cyrus when it comes to being able to grab people’s attention. As a series of memorable moments flash through your head, her penchant for the singular shock makes it no wonder why she’s never really been able to land smoothly as an albums artist. After a series of misguided and oftentimes concerning misfires that culminated in 2017’s Younger Now, a bland project that saw her clean up her image and return to her roots, 2020’s Plastic Hearts seemed like a massive step in the right direction as she let her impressive vocals do all the talking and adopted an engaging glam-rock aesthetic. But while it has given her what might be the biggest hit of her career, it seems that Cyrus has simply opted to make a pop album that might be even safer than what she was making in her Disney days. With mostly vapid lyrical content, forgettable melodies and an overall air of a lack of care – a couple tracks feel like they don’t quite function as a whole, like a vocal track was copy-pasted on – Cyrus still has an impressive voice, but this is one of the most boring A-list releases in recent memory.
Plunking its big single right at the beginning, things kick off with the ubiquitous “Flowers,” which feels like exactly what you might picture in your mind when you think about the basic tenets that make up a successful pop song. There are certainly catchy things about it, but really nothing exciting or inspiring, as a lot of those good things are just taken from better songs. At its core, it’s really just an upbeat version of Bruno Mars’ “When I Was Your Man,” which was apparently intentional as it tied into the story of the relationship drama which was masterfully used to market the song itself. The strings and some of Cyrus’ more growly vocal moments are a nice touch, but for the most part, it’s designed to be background music. The Hemsworth factor persists onto “Jaded,” but this one finds Cyrus a little more compassionate towards him as she regrets things from both sides and apologizes for bringing him along on and off all these years. It’s one of the better choruses on the project, with some more specific lyrics than usual and some of Cyrus’ most believably emotional delivery over an acoustic backdrop, but it kicks off a trend of using exclusively the most predictable rhyme schemes. It’s not as odd as the dissonant chords and harmonies that crop up throughout and begin on the bridge of “Rose Colored Lenses,” though – it feels like they just layered things for layering’s sake and forgot to check if it sounded good. With a languid midtempo guitar groove meandering around a couple notes, the repetitive and sleepy melody makes it sound like Cyrus is punctuating each bar with an eye-roll, like she couldn’t wait to get out of the studio.
The track “Thousand Miles” features Brandi Carlile, who appears to be more of an aesthetic guide and inspiration than anything, because she’s completely relegated to background vocals. Like Sia – another great vocalist that it might have been nice to hear – on a track later on – you wouldn’t have even noticed they were there if their name wasn’t listen out. Taking things into an acoustic country-pop territory, it’s another track that has very little in the way of peaks and valleys, coasting on one dynamic the entire time before another borderline atonal closing moment – this time through a harmonica. The track “You” has the kind of jazzy, theatrical piano ballad feeling that feels like something from the Lady Gaga catalogue, and despite its formulaic qualities, it’s a track that is certainly elevated past some of the others on the strength of Cyrus’ vocals as she sings about her desire to partake in some wild activities with a special someone. And while I can respect “Handstand” for being the only track here that goes for something off-the-wall – I didn’t want it like this. Returning to her Dead Petz era, Cyrus offers an extended spoken-word section about people flying on comets past manta rays and someone named Big Twitchy. With bizarre, washed-out mixing choices, annoying synths, a dated dance break, and whispery vocals, it evades every one of her strengths and mostly just makes me wonder if she’s doing OK.
The back half kicks off with “River,” a track that injects some energy back into the instrumental with the most trendy 80s synthpop vibe on the project, but it’s dulled by some dead-eyed raps and another obnoxiously repetitive chorus. For whatever reason, it feels like there are a litany of songs about rivers that find their artists focusing solely on that metaphor like it was the most mind-blowing, original revelation, and almost nothing else, and this one is no exception. “Violet Chemistry” recruits old friend Mike Will Made-It for an uncharacteristic but decent housey club beat, but Cyrus does her most unenthused performance in the front, not matching the energy at all. The bridge is oddly robotic as she sings about a magical connection, and it just dulls the energy more when the music cuts out to highlight it. “Muddy Feet” is another one where it feels like they just start throwing things at the wall, none of it feeling earned – like the plodding piano notes and trap beat that arrive for the second chorus – before the instrumental is strangely muted for a raspy, angry chorus that could have used some support.
Despite the fact that it feels like Cyrus and her team are writing most of these songs on autopilot – especially a song like “Island,” a generic beachy song that repeats its one-line chorus far too much – there are a couple nice moments to be found at the album’s conclusion, again due to the strength of the vocals. “Wildcard” has a soaring chorus, albeit one where the instrumental quizzically drops back and once again removes some of its power, and some of the most interesting note choices on a pretty bridge, while “Wonder Woman” is a final emotional piano ballad that combines the album’s most impressive vocal moments with some overblown sentiments of Cyrus trying to capture the plight of all women in some captionable soundbites.
At this point in her career, it’s a lot more reasonable to see Miley Cyrus as more of a celebrity personality than a musician – sometimes, her personal life spills over into a chart-topping success, but we shouldn’t be expecting much of an artistic vision from her. For the most part, as the age-old adage goes, Miley is just going to be Miley.
Favourite Tracks: Jaded, Flowers, Wildcard
Least Favourite Track: Handstand