Stepping confidently into her “rock era,” Miley offers a genuinely pleasing, though sometimes hamfisted record that staves off the awkwardness and missteps that plagued her previous albums.
For the better part of a decade, Miley Cyrus has been an avatar for entertainment capitalism’s most insidious processes. She is a living embodiment of the child-star-to-tabloid-fixture pipeline, and typifies the music industry’s fondness for adopting the aesthetics of rap music as a way of courting clicks as much as she does its tendency to disavow the genre as “materialist” as a way of virtue-signaling. Her music is inexorable from social media, both in the frenetic, real-time updates of its visual style and its tendency to spark loud, mindless discourse. She has been canceled and revived more than pretty much any other star, save, perhaps, Justin Bieber. Provocative, talented but directionless, passionate but confused in her politics, she is a star for whom headlines have almost always outweighed output.
Although Cyrus’ various musical projects have rarely been good, a few have been, at the very least, historically significant. Focus exclusively on the drama and it’d be easy to forget that the three-year period of Cyrus’ output that yielded 2013’s Mike WiLL Made-It-produced Bangerz and 2015’s Flaming Lips collaboration Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz was one of the most intriguingly bizarre pop eras of the past decade, throwing a spanner into a fairly staid, Max Martin-run commercial landscape and making discourse around thoughtless co-opting of Black art accessible and understandable to a new generation of pop fans.
In the years since, Cyrus has attempted to outrun that glittery, twerk-heavy chapter of her career. In 2017, she pivoted to back-to-basics country-pop with the painfully dull Younger Now, before, with little explanation or contrition, returning to the rap sound that had defined her Bangerz era on the 2019 EP She Is Coming, the first installment of a planned trilogy that replaced the former record’s freewheeling joy with a cursory nod to GothBoiClique-style emo rap and a typically inane guest verse from RuPaul. Both projects were relative commercial failures, attempts at image rehabilitation that instead removed a once-inescapable star from the conversation entirely.
Before Cyrus could release the sequels to She Is Coming, her life was upended, the vast majority of her new album destroyed in the Woolsey wildfire, and her decade-long relationship with actor Liam Hemsworth ending in a messy, highly-publicized divorce. In the wake of the split, Cyrus reset, scrapping her two unreleased EPs and pursuing a darker, classic rock-indebted sound. In August of this year, she released “Midnight Sky,” a cocaine-dusted disco track that addressed her divorce and subsequent high-profile flings in a surprisingly mature way. In the months following “Midnight Sky”’s release, Cyrus attempted to back up her newly conjured goodwill not through the release of more singles, but through heartbroken covers of Blondie, the Cranberries, and more. The writing on the wall was clear: Miley’s “rock era” had begun.
Plastic Hearts is not without precedent: Cyrus has been playing covers of the Smiths and Bob Dylan for unsuspecting audiences since her Bangerz tour, and, although a little reverential, her recent run of covers was enjoyable and endearing, a transparent attempt at proving her classic rock bona fides. Cyrus’ covers of “Heart of Glass” and “Zombie” are tacked on to the end of some versions of the record, almost like a gesture of goodwill, but there was little need: Plastic Hearts is a genuinely pleasing pop-rock record that, through a handful of canny stylistic and lyrical choices, staves off the awkwardness and missteps that plagued her previous albums.
Although the album artwork—shot by famed rock photog Mick Rock—and the “Heart of Glass” cover would seem to point towards a certain strain of classic rock revival, Plastic Hearts is a stylistic grab bag. Running the gamut from modern radio rock to industrial pop to new wave, Plastic Hearts is unified not by Cyrus’ commitment to any particular era, but to her cosplay as a kind of iconic rock siren lost to the annals of time: Were the production a little less clean, you might be able to pass this off as the greatest hits of a Top of the Pops-era rock diva.
Cyrus’ voice, lower and more guttural than it had ever sounded, was the focal point of those covers, and Plastic Hearts makes clear why: her sandpapery alto has never sounded more natural. Try as she might, Cyrus can’t really rap, and Younger Now made it abundantly clear that Nashville isn’t her calling. Here, she tries on a handful of different styles, and each one works immaculately: Her rasp induces chills on the stadium ballads “Angels Like You” and “Never Be Me,” out-Billy Idols Billy Idol on the “White Wedding” remake “Night Crawling,” and pays homage to “Edge of Seventeen” without cowering in its shadow on “Midnight Sky.” The bulk of the melodies here are gilded and soaring, and she’s never forced to work her tongue around a clunky, focus-tested quasi-rap lyric like “Hallelujah, I’m a freak/I’m a freak, hallelujah/Every week I’mma do ya.”
Lyrically, Plastic Hearts is still vintage Miley, albeit with the edges sharpened: songs about fame and love and being a little too fucked up, whether chemically or emotionally. There’s a thread of unfiltered honesty that positions the album as an emotional twin to Bangerz; that record, beyond the twerking, was largely about Cyrus’ devotion to Hemsworth, opening with what was essentially a marriage proposal and ending with a recitation of Corinthians 13:4, exploring the stresses and caveats of eternal love throughout. A couple of songs here play as if in direct conversation with songs from that record, an older, divorced Cyrus more eloquently echoing realizations she was only beginning to acknowledge seven years ago.
Those only dipping into the beginning of the record will be stung by some of the album’s most hamfisted cuts. “WTF Do I Know,” with its confused provocations (“I’m the type to drive a pickup through your mansion”) and clean, propulsive 2000s rock chorus, plays more P!nk than Pink Floyd, while the staccato hook and showtune-y bounce of “Plastic Hearts” unearth repressed memories of Fall Out Boy’s Infinity on High. A lot of these songs sound like the canned, Muzak versions of rock songs thanks to the production by Louis Bell and Watt, hitmakers generally associated with top-tier pop artists like Camila Cabello and Post Malone. Still, the various successes of Plastic Hearts make you wonder what Cyrus would sound like if paired with someone like Jonathan Rado—who has helmed classic-sounding records by the Killers and Tim Heidecker, as well as past albums by Weyes Blood and Whitney—or Ariel Rechtshaid, who produced Haim’s Women In Music, Pt. III with Danielle Haim and Rostam. More than anything, Plastic Hearts raises questions like this, in the process highlighting a potential future career path: What if Miley Cyrus became an actual rock star?
When Cyrus reunites with past collaborators Mark Ronson—with whom she made the 2018 country-disco stomper “Nothing Breaks Like a Heart”—and Andrew Wyatt, the results are thoughtful and surprising. The country-adjacent ballad “High,” one of a handful of future karaoke classics on the album, contains some of Cyrus’ most beautiful lyrics: “You, like a rolling stone, always building cities on the hearts you broke,” she sings, the crags in her voice given space to resonate, rather than erased. A line like “I don’t miss you, but I think of you and don’t know why” might seem simple, but it’s honest and heartbreaking. Best of all is “Bad Karma,” a raucous slow-build of a song featuring Joan Jett on vocals and Angel Olsen on guitar. Snot-nosed and silly, it’s a high-camp panto of ’80s hard rock, finding Cyrus and Jett trading one-liners—“I’ve always picked a giver ’cause I’ve always been the taker,” goes the delirious chorus—over one of the record’s few live drum tracks. It’s strange, outsized fun, and a glorious example of what Cyrus can do when she lightly plays with her own self-image.
The most interesting, and most complicated moment is saved for last. On “Golden G String” Cyrus attempts to show some kind of contrition for her mid-2010s antics:
I was tryin’ to own my power
Still I’m tryin’ to work it out
And at least it gives the paper somethin’ they can write about
And oh, that’s just the world that we’re livin’ in
The old boys hold all the cards, and they ain’t playin’ gin
It’s an intriguing idea that doesn’t really land. An “I did it for the patriarchy” apologia doesn’t quite address the layers of privilege and capital that have been involved with Cyrus’ most egregious missteps. Still, there’s a refreshing openness to a simple lyric like “There are layers to this body/Primal sex and primal shame/They told me I should cover it/So I went the other way”, which does more to explain Cyrus’ thought processes than any number of foot-in-mouth interviews. Explanations, though, are beside the point—“Golden G String” is a warm, inviting ballad, one of Cyrus’ most deeply-felt in years. Ultimately, that’s Plastic Hearts’ greatest success: for the first time in a long time, a Miley Cyrus record is music first, headlines second.
Buy: Rough Trade