Miley Cyrus is no stranger to reinvention; from fictional teen pop star Hannah Montana to the controversial R&B era of Bangerz, a detour through psychedelia with Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz and into country with Younger Now. The brilliantly rousing single ‘Midnight Sky’ signalled a direction change into 1980’s inspired rock, albeit with a heavy dance floor influence. With her new album, Plastic Hearts, boasting collaborations with 80s rock stalwarts Joan Jett, Stevie Nicks and Billy Idol the intentions are clear. Is Plastic Hearts all superficial gloss from the serial shape-shifter or does a true rock heart beat beneath?
The album opener isn’t about winning hearts, it is a full on punch to the guts. ‘WTF Do I Know’ references post-divorce life with a heavy rock beat, distorting guitars and cutting lyrics “Am I wrong that I moved on and I don’t even miss you? Thought it’d be you until I die. But I let go”. There is no time to put away the air guitar before we segue into ‘Plastic Hearts’, another full on number punctuated with searing guitar solos and opening bars that sound like an ode to The Rolling Stones’ ‘Sympathy for the Devil’.
Cyrus catches her breath on the power Ballard ‘Angels Like You’, another post-divorce number as she reflects “Baby, angels like you can’t fly down here with me”. From this point on, the album seems to lack a true identity in terms of musical genre. Dua Lipa collaboration ‘Prisoner’ sounds like a fusion of the retro disco of Future Nostalgia with a punk rock tinge. Whilst Dua Lipa seems the odd-one-out in the collaboration roster of Plastic Hearts, ‘Prisoner’ is a strong addition to the album. The song is a celebration of empowerment and independence that blends the two singers together into a perfect intoxicating cocktail. It also compliments the equally empowering ‘Midnight Sky’, which is the standout track, a masterclass of powerful vocals and an eighties inspired disco bassline.
The other collaborations are a mixed bag. Cyrus is known for kitsch – think swinging naked on a wrecking ball and giant inflatable tongue slide – and that is what the inclusion of Billy Idol on ‘Nightcrawling’ feels like. ‘Nightcrawling’ sounds like a parody of the musical genre Cyrus is paying homage to and I was half expecting Graham Norton to pop up and announce it was a Eurovision Entry. ‘Bad Karma’ the Joan Jett duet scores highly on the camp front but does little to enhance the album. The steady tribal drum beat and the vocal exchanges are fun but instantly forgettable. Embracing the fact that ‘Midnight Sky’ bears more than a passing resemblance to ‘Edge of Seventeen’ led to the ‘Edge of Midnight’ bonus track mashup with Stevie Nicks. While not a major variation from ‘Midnight Sky’ itself, this song demonstrates that Cyrus’ voice has found its natural home in this genre of music and compliments Nicks’ perfectly.
The duets are a distraction from the overall strength of Plastic Hearts. Continuing the break-up undercurrent of the album, ‘Hate Me’ has a Beatles quality to some of the production. Despite the melancholic subject, with lines including “Maybe that day you won’t hate me”, the delivery bounces along with positive energy.
The three remaining ballads are some of the highlights. ‘High’ brings more of the Cyrus blunt honesty as she sings “And I don’t miss you but I think of you” on a stripped back acoustic led track that has echoes of the Nashville styled Younger Now. ‘Golden G String’ is both confessional and a critique to the “world that we’re living in” as Cyrus powers through the ballad with pointed lyrics like “They told me I should cover it, so I went the other way”. On an album that reflects on the breakdown of her marriage to actor Liam Hemsworth, this song highlights independence and empowerment and as such makes it a fitting closer.
The penultimate track, ‘Never Be Me’ is another reflection piece and my personal favourite of the ballads. The folksy tone highlights Cyrus’ gritty vocals as she confesses “But if you’re looking for stable, that’ll be never be me / If you’re looking for faithful, that’ll never be me’. ‘Never Be Me’, like a number of tracks across the album, is so candid. Cyrus confirms she does have a heart and one that is far from plastic as she brings her strongest and most personal lyrics yet.
Plastic Hearts also has Cyrus finding a true home for her voice, one that suits her far more than pop or country. Yet, at times, I am not sure what the album is trying to be. The rock sensibilities are there but songs like ‘Prisoner’, however strong, detract from that. The tribute to the musical style of the late ’70s and early ’80s is also evident on some tracks but is spoiled by walking such a thin line between homage and pastiche. There is no doubt that lyrically and vocally, Plastic Hearts is Cyrus’ strongest album to-date and shows her further maturing as an artist. Whilst the record beats with an emotional heart, some of the gimmicks and collaborations mean it is far too plasticky to be ever regarded as classic.
Words by Andrew Butcher
Check out Andrew’s blog here.
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