Miley Cyrus has made a career out of provocation.
The Los Angeles singer, 25, has spent over a decade in the limelight now. From her lead role on the hit Disney show Hannah Montana, to her early success as a pop star with songs like “Party in the U.S.A,” followed by her controversial turn towards more sexually explicit territory with 2013’s Bangerz.
Once the paragon of childhood and innocence, Cyrus had become a garishly outspoken sex symbol by the time of Bangerz‘s release. To watch her cavort around the VMAs stage with Robin Thicke in 2013 was to watch the final nail in the coffin of what was once one of America’s wholesome teen idols.
Or so we thought.
Cyrus made her return in 2017 with Younger Now, after about three years worth of “I love weed” quotes, unnecessary nude cover shoots and far-out collabs with The Flaming Lips. This current era of Miley is decidedly more wholesome — the video for lead single “Malibu” is so pure it could be an ad for laundry detergent — but still, it feels a little forced.
It’s one step forward and two steps back for Cyrus with Younger Now. Her new music is just as bland as it is inoffensive.
The most disappointing part about Younger Now is the waste of what could have been a crowning moment for Cyrus. Beneath all the twerking, she showed glimpses of the bravery and individuality required to be a bona fide pop star and cultural tastemaker. Even though Cyrus’ music has never been consistently good, it was quite daring to do what she did at the VMAs, as she must have know it would incur the wrath of middle America. She showed similar audacity in releasing an album like Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz in 2015, a meandering psychedelic project which, while lacking commercial appeal, had plenty of ambition.
There were even early signs that Younger Now could have been a great record, particularly in the charmingly honest video for the title track. But Cyrus’ exciting new image fizzles out after about 10 minutes; the highlights of this album are nowhere near enough to keep the whole thing from crumbling.
“Malibu” and “Younger Now” are undoubtedly the best tracks. The former is a curveball from Cyrus and her songwriting partner Oren Yoel. Its delicately chiming guitars and unpredictable chord progression make it an unexpected, folk-tinged anthem. Cyrus’ lyrics are as frank as always, but they carry extra symbolism this time — Lorde hit the nail on its head when she tweeted her fondness for “the idea of Malibu as utopia… as somewhere we hope we’re headed.”
“Younger Now” is just as disarmingly direct. “Change is a thing you can count on,” Cyrus sings as cymbals explode around her. It sounds like a big parade float, celebrating life and person-hood as it rolls onward.
Unfortunately, that’s where the fancy comparisons end on the album. The rest is painfully lacking in imagination. It sounds exactly like what it is — a pop star in transition, adopting a played-out aesthetic as a crutch. The fake country stomp of “Week Without You” plods on and on. The honeyed vocal harmonies in the chorus do little to change the joyless taste the song leaves in your mouth. Ditto for “Rainbowland,” which features a Dolly Parton cameo that’s perhaps a desperate attempt to inject any personality into the record.
Part of the reason that Younger Now feels so anonymous has to be the lyrics, which were seemingly written to be as generic as humanly possible. Each track gives away its meaning in either the chorus or the title.
Additionally, the songs lack emotional complexity. From longing to rejection, Cyrus expresses her feelings in infuriatingly simple language. In “Bad Mood,” she says over and over again, “I wake up in a bad mood,” an impressively innovative way of provoking that same bad mood in listeners.
In “Miss You So Much,” she spends the majority of the song rhyming with “here,” turning an otherwise adequate tune into a disgusting hellscape of long “E” sounds.
The worst offender of them all is “Inspired,” Cyrus’ “Hillary Clinton song.“ It features bewildering details like her father calling her “the handle on the door / that opens up to change” and yawn-inducing platitudes like “How can we escape all the fear and all the hate?” and “I hope you feel inspired.”
The more you listen to Younger Now, the more it fades into the background. Cyrus’ attempt to successfully reinvent herself has failed. Even worse, if chart projections are to be believed, it will fail quietly. For a former provocateur like Cyrus, this is a disappointing new low.
Younger Now lacks controversy, excitement and consistent quality. Cyrus may have found her Malibu, but her music is a long way away.
Contact arts writer Owen Zoll at firstname.lastname@example.org.