The Lowdown: For her post-divorce album, Plastic Hearts, Miley Cyrus deploys big synth energy in full ’80s-rawk drag. Over six uneven albums, Cyrus has dabbled across pop genres, but she’s always held a penchant for the era and attitude of mainstream glam, new wave, and hair rock, dropping covers of Joan Jett and Blondie in live sets and covering Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” as early as 2010’s Can’t Be Tamed. Now 28 years old, Cyrus leans fully into these influences, enlisting heroes like Stevie Nicks to have a blast with her while ripping themselves off. Even without her current incarnation’s spunky sneer and platinum shag, Cyrus still has teeth, though this algorithmic “rock” can filter out her bite at times. Still, this might be Cyrus’ most successful pastiche yet.
The Good: Since her breakout role as Disney’s Hannah Montana, a teen leading a double life as a pop star, Cyrus has relished her role as a chameleonic entertainer. She’s been unapologetic about making both albums that serve the hungers of the “industry” and others that satisfy her artistic interests, even when she has been appropriately critiqued for crass cultural appropriation. But on Plastic Hearts, Cyrus sounds as though she’s not just trying on a sound and sentiment, but more fully inhabiting it for perhaps the first time.
First of all, Cyrus’ mezzo-soprano voice is a distinctive — and weird — instrument, but it seems particularly suited to this collection’s sonic universe. On album opener, “WTF Do I Know”, she delivers gravelly staccato suburban punk. One moment, she sounds like a warbly mid-pubescent boy, and the next she’s crooning smoothly over a high-flying chorus. Her voice is husky, twangy, and surprisingly dynamic; it can growl, joke, or gospel-belt, sometimes within the space of a song. The instrumentation or melody of some of these songs may be a gloss, but the emotion and grit of Cyrus’ voice never is.
At first, the country ballad “High”, with its steel guitars, chain-shaking rhythm, and swelling harmonies, seems like a deviation — but even Axl Rose was at his most powerful trilling over sweet acoustic guitars. That’s another aspect Cyrus shares with the hair-metal era: she leans into the excess and absurdity of her persona while demonstrating a self-aware, self-deprecating sense of humor about both her personal relationships and public image, as on album closer “Golden G String”.
Cyrus is co-writer on all 12 tracks, which include collaborations with Miike Snow’s Andrew Wyatt, Ryan Tedder, Andrew Wotman (Watt), and Alexandra Tamposi. Yet, the strongest moments come when Cyrus explicitly interpolates her influences and infuses them with her own energy. Album standout “Midnight Sky” remixes Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen” from 1981’s Bella Donna, yet as Cyrus discusses a post-breakup period of wildness and renewed worldview, the song rises above imitation. The fun is multiplied with the inclusion of a mashup of the two songs, “Edge of Midnight”, as well as live covers of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and The Cranberries’ “Zombie”. Here, Cyrus’ power as a performer is really on display; she can hit the notes and then some — but she can also make indelible songs her own.
The Bad: The covers are exceptional, yes, and Cyrus isn’t shy about her influences. But too many of the songs rely on well-known melodies or hooks for their backbones: For examples, “Gimme What I Want” lifts the currently omnipresent drum breakdown of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”, and “Prisoner” featuring Dua Lipa is essentially Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” with some gloominess borrowed from The Weeknd.
The overall production is streamlined and lush, but the pop slickness can start to feel antiseptic. A few songs include stuck-on guitar solos that feel like sonic Clip Art. If Cyrus wanted to explore guitar-based rock, why not take some risks in raggedness and structure? Lean into not only the exterior trappings of new wave, punk, or glam, but the true strangeness and experimentation that’s possible in those realms. Ultimately, the pop “punk” of Plastic Hearts shares much more DNA with 2005 Ashlee Simpson than with The Runaways.
The Verdict: In 2019, responding to public critiques of her divorce and displays of pansexuality, Cyrus tweeted, “You can say I am a twerking, pot smoking, foul-mouthed hillbilly, but I am not a liar.” Cyrus has always been more interesting — eclectic, provocative, upending expectations — as a public figure than as a musician. But on songs like “Midnight Sky”, Cyrus has found a sonic mode where listeners can more fully hear her distinctive voice and unruly perspective. Like her hero Elvis Presley perhaps, Plastic Hearts proves that Cyrus can be derivative and still be an original.
Essential Tracks: “Midnight Sky”, “High”, and any of the covers
Pick up a copy of Plastic Hearts here…
Plastic Hearts Artwork