Miley Cyrus attempts a country-pop reinvention on her sixth LP, Younger Now, to middling success. After the nearly radioactive excess of 2013’s Bangerz and the psychedelic meandering of 2015’s Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, her latest is an endearingly stripped-back affair and, quite obviously, a labor of love.
Hanging up her crazy costumes and moving on from naked forays on wrecking balls proved to be the ultimate surprise for the hitmaker. Less is more this time around, and she’s truly taken the mantra to heart. The album clocks in at a sparse 11 tracks and features minimal writing or production credits, leaving the “Adore You” singer to receive most of the acclaim or disdain.
She opened the era with a declaration of love to her fiancé, Liam Hemsworth, on the plucky lead single “Malibu.” Cute and unexpected, it wasn’t quite as effective an opener as “We Can’t Stop” or the defiant “Can’t Be Tamed” but became a sizeable hit nonetheless. The song remains a clear highlight on the tracklist..
Unfortunately, the twangy pop efforts that followed were less striking. It says something that a performance at BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge earlier this month featured mainly old material. Despite the handful of buzz tracks released ahead of the project, none of them really captured the public’s attention like her previous releases.
Innovative break-up anthem “Week Without You” is an ode about her time apart from Hemsworth, but is ultimately forgettable. Although the second official single and title track offered up her most enduring pop production in years, it also failed to resonate with the public. Even the candy-colored visual featuring a cast of adorable geriatrics could not salvage the song, which peaked in the lower rungs of the Billboard Hot 100.
Confusingly, the buzz tracks seem to be among the least promising on the project. They’re reflective of the other works but don’t hit quite as hard. Even if the album lacks a true radio hit, the rest of the material feels markedly stronger.
As the latest pop goddess to explore her country roots, there are a lot of parallels to draw between Younger Now and Kesha’s Rainbow. Similar to the “Praying” singer, Miley has filled her album with iridescent references and uplifting themes. They also share a collaborator.
Both of the pop icons teams up with Miley’s godmother and country legend Dolly Parton. Here she appears on “Rainbowland,” which is one of the brightest moments on the record. The pair find beautiful harmonies as they dream of utopia over a shimmering guitar line complete with just the right amount of fuzz. Despite expressing desires to paint the world in bright colors while hand-in-hand, a lengthy introduction reveals that the duo recorded the stomping single in separate studios. Considering this, their performance is all the more commendable.
“Miss You So Much” and “I Would Die For You” are a pair of tender love songs presumably about Hemsworth, with the former being another standout. “When you look up at a rainbow, do you ever wonder what’s really waiting at the end? I don’t want no gold, nothing’s more than you,” she earnestly proclaims over simple strings. The effort features some of her most mature writing and is a fitting anthem for the couple who have weathered quite a few storms. The latter is a slightly more trite lyrically and is evidence that sometimes it is beneficial to bring in another writer for editing purposes.
Things pick up a bit with a trio or rock-tinged efforts on the back end of the project. “Thinkin” is a melodic cut that sees her obsessing about a romantic partner, and “Bad Mood” takes over the morning after a night of tossing and turning. With so many of the other songs verging on being overly sweet, it is a pleasant reminder that the hitmaker has not lost her edge. “Love Someone” falls back into romantic musings but still maintains a more rock-oriented production.
“She’s Not Him” finds Miley in the midst of a love triangle and is maybe one of the most emotionally raw moments on the LP. “You changed my life. You’ve been my world. There’s no other girl that looks like ya, darling,” she sings to a female lover over atmospheric strings. Despite the spark that existed between them, she announces that they will never be able to compete with her one true love. It is a heartrending performance and features some of her most honest lyricism.
In the end, Younger Now plays too closely to its final song, “Inspired.” With an empowering message shared over swelling strings, the optimistic track doesn’t quite qualify as anthemic. The 24-year-old paints pretty lyrical pictures but ultimately fails to recapture the magic of her defining power ballad “The Climb.” The end result is more saccharine sweet than poignant. It hovers around greatness but consistently falls short of expectations.
After the high stakes partying and youthful rebellion of the last few years, Younger Now is a measured retreat to the safer territory of her past. Since she is returning to familiar ground, nothing feels exceptionally new. The LP may have been innovative had it come after 2008’s Breakout. Now, she checks off the required boxes but plays too safe.
One thing missing from the album is a certified bop. As a usually reliable pop princess, Miley has previously delivered at least one anthem every era. This time around the closest she gets is the title track, which feels antithetical to the progress she has made in the past. Dazzling and well written, the song is a little too tightly produced and contrived. It is hard to equate the track with the carefree artist who, while a little much, was clearly holding nothing back in the past.
For all its shortcomings, one ultimate truth pervades the release: Miley will always keep us guessing. She has emerged as pop’s new chameleon. The diva is distancing herself from “Wrecking Ball” now, but we do not know what is around the corner. Next week she could get her trusty sledgehammer out and dust off her teddy bear costume or she could take an entirely new route. We don’t know what’s next and that is what will keep us coming back for more even though her latest effort falls short.