There is an interesting and welcome trend developing at the very top end of contemporary pop music. The unfortunate demise of album sales has had the fortunate effect of allowing the biggest stars in the industry to distance themselves from commercial, safe pop and given them the freedom of a little sonic and conceptual experimentation. Justin Timberlake’s 20⁄20 Experience utilised progressive song structures; Beyoncé’s self-titled album flirted with alternative R&B and was accompanied by a series of short films; the industrial sound on Kanye’s Yeezus is more abrasive than any mainstream hip-hop album before or since; even Carly Rae Jepsen’s recently released E•MO•TION harks back to 80s synth-pop. And now Miley Cyrus, known initially as Disney teenybopper Hannah Montana, briefly as the musical heir to Dolly Parton, and most recently for her admirably frank (or shamefully lewd and rude, depending on your opinion) approach to sexuality and drugs, has joined their ranks and dropped 2015’s answer to lo-fi psychedelic pop.
In many ways Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz is the antithesis to its aptly titled predecessor, Bangerz. While Bangerz was concise, radio-ready, upbeat, and to be frank, a lot less controversial than her public persona, this new ninety-two minute, twenty-three track release is way too long, rough around the edges, but certainly interesting. Love it or hate it, on this record Miley has finally lived up to her “I don’t give a fuck” mantra.
But, of course, rejecting commerciality doesn’t always translate to good music. So does it work here? We’ll see. Opener Dooo It!!!, lyrically, is Miley at her goofiest worst - rhyming “I smoke pot” and “I don’t give a fuck” over and over again in the song’s chorus. Okay, Miley, we get it.
The immediately following tracks signal a change in tone from the raucous opener, with the more obvious presence of Miley’s producer and newfound musical guru Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips, and they are really quite good. Karen Don’t Be Sad is a genuinely beautiful, actually brilliant pop ballad, with strummed acoustic guitars and drabs of luscious washed out synth-strings. Miley’s voice sounds great, breathy in tone and melancholy in emotion, doused in reverb giving it a notably psychedelic touch. The tracks The Floyd Song (Sunrise), mourning the death of her dog, and Something About Space Dude follow suit with touching lyrics and chilled out, hazy production. What’s best about these few songs is their melodic simplicity, but apparent songwriting abilities: they’re satisfying, catchy pop songs, with a strong creative flair.
If only Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz had ended there (and perhaps dropped the first track) - we’d have a fantastic EP on our hands. But no, there are 18 (?!?!) more tracks to go. While the rest of the album is rarely bad, and always retains its slightly alternative edge, it’s just not as good. Some critics will surely laud the album as a whole, enthralled by this unexpected experimental streak, but beneath the veneer, a number of tracks scream of lazy, even amateurish songwriting - in the beats, dull synth sounds, and most obviously the lyrics.
BB Talk, despite an okay chorus, is pretty much unlistenable due to Miley’s skin-crawlingly cringe-worthy spoken-word about an overly-affectionate ex-lover; a contribution from lo-fi pop legend Ariel Pink is criminally wasted on the immediately forgettable Tiger Dreams; and the piano-led eulogy to her late Pablow the Blowfish could have come from a schmaltzy kids TV programme. Bang Me Box features similarly rushed, clumsy lyrics, although this time they’re (very explicitly) about lesbian sex, and (unfortunately?) come across as very unsexy. This track is admittedly saved by fantastic production from Mike WiLL Made-It, making it an almost Daft Punk-esque G-funk banger.
Around half the tracks are thoroughly enjoyable stoner-pop songs; the remainder are, at best, interesting experimentations, and at worst, examples of ham-fisted laziness. But what Miley certainly proves is that, given the freedom, she is a creative musical artist with a unique sound and vision. Without the pressure of the industry or the label, this is Miley Cyrus as Miley Cyrus. Despite her tongue-lolling butt-twerking dry-humping attempts to demand our attention, it is this newly demonstrated artistry which shows why she deserves it.