If nothing else, Miley Cyrus should be applauded for her clear refusal to give a fuck in terms of her public perception, former teenybopper fan base and country roots. Regardless of the actual quality of the music itself, she is exploring the music she wants to, unconcerned with commercial success or role model status. In other words, drugs may well have been the best thing to happen to the erstwhile Hannah Montana.
To be sure, Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz is a gloriously sloppy attempt at being as transgressive and provocative as possible (why else would she open the record with a plea to smoke pot?) that often falls flat on its face. But is nevertheless endlessly fascinating. More than anything, Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz is the sound of an artist (yes, she should be classified as such) exploring her potential and following her muse into strange and ugly places.
But just as often, she proves herself capable of great melodic beauty. “Karen Don’t Be Sad” is a gorgeous, affecting electro-ballad that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on her collaborator’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. With her raspy, smoke-stained vocals occasionally breaking and sounding on the verge of tears, it’s a lovely moment that stands in stark contrast to the somewhat juvenile opening that is “Dooo It!” Elsewhere, “Cyrus Skies,” another clear highpoint, is a soaring ballad that shows off the whole of Cyrus’ impressive range.
Throughout, Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz is very much the work of someone having spent a great deal of time in the Flaming Lips’ universe. More than anything else, Cyrus positions herself as a sort of female Wayne Coyne, her fractured voice cooing away detachedly and lost in a psychedelic haze. It’s a fascinating approach and departure from the work on which she has made a name for herself over the last decade. Were this her debut effort or had her Disney Channel past not saddled her with a squeaky-clean preteen image, Cyrus may well have been heralded as a great new talent.
Unfortunately, she carries with her a certain stigma that prevents many from seeing her as the artist she has long since proven herself to be. Far from a popular opinion, Cyrus’ contemporary work must be approached at a remove from and without the contextual framework of her early years. Far from a mere calculated image makeover, her approach to music in general and psychedelia in particular is far too odd to be anything less than an artistic evolution that, for better or worse, hinges upon a complete and total self-reinvention, a reshaping of a long-held public perception that will leave many questioning the validity and authenticity of her recorded output for years to come.
In teenybopper terms, Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz is essentially her Head. Where the Monkees struggled to prove themselves anything more than the Pre-Fab Four, capable of playing their own instruments and writing songs equal to the hits on which their reputation was built, Cyrus has long been seen as a talented vocalist and performer. Here, she simply breaks with the stylistic mold within which she was fashioned to create something that feels new and different because of who she is/was. But the songs and sounds here could well be in the direction she was always headed. Having grown into an artist in a manner most public, she unfortunately saw the entirety of her artistic evolution play out in front of an audience of millions.
Now, creating and performing on her own terms, it can’t help but feel like a slightly disingenuous attempt at a sort of self-destruction/rebirth that will ultimately allow her to become the person she wants to be. But this is only because of who she was perceived to be, not necessarily who she actually was. And given her age, it’s unfair to hold her to a standard within which she remained at 21 who she was at 13; no normal person is fully developed at that age.
While this might sound a bit apologist in nature, it’s meant more to provide the proper framework within which to approach Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz. Yes this is a Miley Cyrus album and yes she has done some absurd things in recent years that fly in the face of the younger version of herself, but who hasn’t? Taken on its own, Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz is a sprawling, often sloppy, occasionally transcendent amalgamation of psychedelic pop filtered through a decidedly 21st century lens.
And while not everything here succeeds (much of the album is, in fact, a sprawling mess of ideas) Cyrus deserves a great deal of credit for unabashedly taking chances with her music, her image, both past and present, and what will ultimately be her controversial legacy within pop music. From “Karen Don’t Be Sad” through “Space Boots” she manages a gorgeously free-floating quartet of stylistically and thematically similar songs that, on their own, would make for a solid core of any album. That they’re surrounded by strangely juvenile and often awkward spoken word interludes like “BB Talk” makes them all the more startling.
Admittedly, her lyrical over-reliance on her drug use and sex life can, at over 90 minutes, become cringe-worthy. But taken in small doses, it’s a fascinating glimpse into the mind of an artist putting the whole of herself fully on display. Whether or not she continues down this road of full transparency and explicitly sexualized lyrics (“Bang Me Box” in particular) remains to be seen. But in the meantime it’s an often-uncomfortable approach that finds her working through a host of complex physical and emotional interactions that don’t often find themselves expressed in mainstream pop music.
Ultimately, it’s a messy, deeply personal move that finds Cyrus unabashedly putting forth an unapologetically full-fledged reinvention of self, one lacking in timidity and subtlety. So brazen is Cyrus here, especially in giving the album away for free, that Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz can’t help but feel like a declarative line in the sand; you’re either with her or against her. And regardless of which side you come down on, she doesn’t give a fuck and is going to continue doing whatever she wants without apology. That’s the mark of a true artist.
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