There aren’t many pop stars in the industry quite like Miley Cyrus.
Namely, there don’t seem to be any former teenybopper Disney singers able to wield as much creative freedom as she does on this sprawling, 23-song album. Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, surprise-released after Cyrus hosted this year’s MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday 30 August, completes her transformation into dual-identity star: both provocative tween idol and free-wheeling chaser of the muse.
Her fifth album presents Cyrus as the colourful, twisted and self-dubbed pansexual, the furthest removed she’s yet been from the Hannah Montana persona that made her famous. If you’re not up to speed with her latest topless Instagram selfies or various interviews addressing body dysmorphia and sexual fluidity, Cyrus uses this album to tackle the extreme highs and lows of love and death, careening from crisp synthpop and trap to a woozy, buzzing psychedelia.
You can hear lead producer Wayne Coyne’s hand all over Dead Petz. The Flaming Lips frontman shares production duties with the rest of his band, as well as hip-hop hitmaker Mike Will Made It, Cyrus’s core collaborator on her all-grown-up-now RCA debut Bangerz. The results ping back and forth between all of Cyrus’s different guises.
There are still the hints of the hip-hop and trap pastiches from Bangerz. Cyrus’s distorted voice screams: “Yeah, I smoke pot / yeah, I love peace / but I don’t give a fuck / I ain’t no hippie,” before opener Dooo It! flips from sub-bass rumbles into a boombap coda – and you can hear hints of MIA’s abrasive bravado throughout. The Floyd Song (Sunrise), written for a pet dog that died in April 2014 while Cyrus was on tour, meshes acoustic guitar, zapping electronics and warm synth pads in a way that almost sounds like Cyrus fronting a Flaming Lips cover band. This isn’t her first time working with the band, and when they co-produce they opt for full-on synthpop shimmer. They smother tracks like Tangerine in processed sounds indebted to 80s pop and the Flaming Lips’ own unhinged psychpop.
You get the impression that although Bangerz was painted as Cyrus’s break from the cutesy constraints of Hannah Montana and Disney, Dead Petz really allows her to experiment. She’s making Hype Machine-ready synthpop rather than acting out a pseudo-twerking, tongue-wagging rap caricature that courts the charts. Quoting her own team of advisers, in a New York Times profile about the making of Dead Petz, Cyrus said they had “never seen someone at my level, especially a woman, have this much freedom. I literally can do whatever I want. It’s insane.”
And she’s right. This album is definitely too long, and starts to meander into bonus-track territory just over the halfway mark, but marks an important signpost in her career. It’s hard to imagine many other artists signed to Disney’s Hollywood Records label who could convincingly make music that flirts with Metronomy-style bassline riffing (on cunnilingus anthem Bang Me Box) and then sounds like Die Antwoord or a PC Music reject on 46-second interlude I’m So Drunk. Unlike Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato and other former Nickelodeon or Disney performers, Cyrus has been afforded the privilege of collaborating with producers and musicians who let her make whatever the hell she wants. Even her label, RCA, aren’t fussed. Dead Petz won’t count towards her multi-album deal with them, but they’ve happily let her skip off and do it, saying they’re “pleased to support Miley’s unique musical vision”, in a statement to the New York Times.
You may not have the patience to set aside an hour and a half for Cyrus singing about her past hook-ups, clingy lovers, and dead pet dog and blowfish – especially when this psychpop mish-mash slips close to lyrical self-parody during its most frank moments. But there’s a sweetness to her naivety. After a childhood lived in the spotlight, Dead Petz feels like the first time Cyrus has truly let her guard down in song, Wrecking Ball and all. She’s mastering her voice, belting it out on closer Twinkle Song or letting it crack with emotion on Pablow the Blowfish, and doing so on her own terms. In her corner of the industry, that’s saying something.
This article was written by Tshepo Mokoena, for theguardian.com on Monday 31st August 2015 14.35 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010