The opening track on Miley Cyrus‘ fifth studio album Bangerz, “Adore You,” is spare and beautiful, one of the most pitch-perfect love songs of the year. That song sounds like the album that Miley could have made, a jewel of hazy sentiment that’s mature and tempered.
But that was never Cyrus’ intention, and over the last year — as Cyrus teamed up with Pharrell, Mike WiLL Made It and a string of other hip-hop producers and rappers, cut off her hair, and transformed herself into the most controversial pop star of her generation — she hasn’t been shy about what she wanted: To shock and provoke, to elicit a reaction. It wasn’t an accident (she herself described it as “a strategic hot mess”), but it’s put the focus squarely on Cyrus as provocateur, not Cyrus as musician. That’s a shame — she’s talented. On Bangerz, out today, on RCA Records, that talent gets muddied in pursuit of a something less enduring.
For Miley neophytes, who knew her mostly as the girl from Hannah Montana and for her biggest crossover hit, “Party In The USA,” Bangerz probably seems like a particularly dramatic departure, but she’s always been a more complicated figure than her squeaky-clean Disney image suggested. Last summer’s Backyard Sessions videos — raw, haunting covers of songs from the oft-covered “Jolene” to the lesser-known “Look What They’ve Done To My Song” — showcased such a discriminating taste that it was hard to ignore, and even on 2010’s Can’t Be Tamed, there was a lot of heart; she co-wrote every song on the album, and while the politics of “Liberty Walk” might have been nebulously defined, the intention to say something was still there, and “Stay” packed more genuine pathos than most of her contemporaries seemed capable of delivering.
There’s little of that on Bangerz, which kicks off promising and fizzles fast. “We Can’t Stop” is still great, all woozy swirls of bleary celebration, but “SMS (Bangerz)” feels like a wasted opportunity, too cacophonous to be listenable, with a misspent Britney Spears phoning in a cooing verse or two that doesn’t add much. The Nelly-assisted “4×4” is squalling faux-Dirty South posturing (with the worst lyric on the record, Cyrus declaring, “Driving so fast ’bout to piss on myself”), and Future‘s contribution on “My Darlin'” is nicely eerie, but too similar to Ciara‘s superior “Where You Go.”
“Wrecking Ball” still surges nicely, with crushing instrumentation and a lot of amiable frustration, but “Love Money Party” is dull, trappy nonsense with a thudding verse from Big Sean, and the dubiously titled “#GETITRIGHT” squanders a catchy funk riff from Pharrell on a silly concept about being too turned up. (“You make flowers grow under my bed” is a nice lyrical turn, though.) The grinding, churning midtempo “Drive” packs some of the same emotional punch that “Wrecking Ball” does, but even that intrigues more than it engages.
The French Montana collab “FU” starts off promising, with Cyrus warbling in the style of Gloria Gaynor‘s “I Will Survive,” but the cringe-inducing lyrics sink it; “Do My Thang” is the rare song that actually bangs, but it still comes off like an inferior “Where Have You Been.” There’s more to like on “Maybe You’re Right” (the only song on the album written with Cyrus longtime collaborator John Shanks; their work together is still great), which is more melodic and savvily produced; so is “Someone Else,” which has a throbbing beat like something from Can’t Be Tamed.
The deluxe edition bonus tracks are better: The twangy “Rooting For My Baby” sounds like a lost session from Justified, and the fizzy disco jam “On My Own” evokes Queen‘s “Under Pressure” (or maybe interpolates it outright), but the Ludacris-assisted “Hands In The Air” should have been left on the cutting room floor. Even with some highlights, Bangerz isn’t as satisfying a listen as anyone would want; the highs are high but the lows are pretty abysmal.
Cyrus feels like more of a provocateur than a performer, and that may be the issue, even if what she’s doing is smarter than everyone thinks. There’s a grotesque, cartoonish quality to the Bangerz era, from the Terry Richardson photo spreads to the VMAs performance to the overt sexuality of the lyrics, as though Miley, sexualized by the American public since her mid-teens, is turning her own fetishization inside out. You want to see sex? I’ll show you sex, she seems to be saying as she strips down and contorts her body while singing about abusing narcotics and (literally) urinating on herself. The hysteria and concern over her hypersexualized public image ignores the possibility that she’s trying to be weird and gross — do we really think that Miley Cyrus has no idea what the male gaze is? It’s a madly compelling trainwreck of an experiment, but it doesn’t make for a listenable album. Ultimately, she has the world’s attention, but for those of us who actually quite liked Miley Cyrus’ music before, the fact that the resultant album is this turgid and joyless feels like a big disappointment.
Lorde‘s “Royals” is currently #1 on the Hot 100; it’s interesting that the New Zealand singer-songwriter, while only a few years Cyrus’ junior, feels like a world apart, satirizing the conspicuous consumption that Cyrus celebrates and writing into the anxiety of youth while Cyrus hurtles forward like a wrecking ball into a turbulent adulthood, with a no-fucks-given party girl persona that’s too methodical to be anything but calculated. In a song called “Ribs” taken from Lorde’s debut album, Pure Heroine, she sings, “It feels so scary getting old,” and it’s a moment that’s breathtaking in its honesty.
At 20, Cyrus has been in the industry for nearly a decade, and she doesn’t seem afraid of growing up at all. Maybe that’s the issue — there isn’t enough vulnerability here, or in the spectacular performance art of Grown-Up Miley, to find likable. There are some great songs on Bangerz, but there, and elsewhere, she’s banging so loud that it just sounds like noise.
The Best Song Wasn’t The Single: “Adore You” is simply gorgeous. Hopefully, that will be the thing that’s remembered best.
Best Listened To: Piecemeal. It’s a lot to take in.
Full Disclosure: This is me to Miley Cyrus.
Idolator Score: 2.5/5
— Sam Lansky