‘Plastic Hearts’ by Miley Cyrus Review: Back to the Future

By Mark Richardson

Miley Cyrus’s greatest strength as an artist is that she’s not afraid to fail—but sometimes that fearlessness looks like self-sabotage. Throughout her career she’s hit her marks as a pop figure, making catchy radio-ready songs and putting out provocative videos, but she instinctively pushes against expectations, with mixed results.

Her 2013 album, “Bangerz,” created in collaboration with hip-hop producer Mike Will and with guests including rappers Future and Big Sean, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart and had two top 10 singles, one of which, “Wrecking Ball,” hit No. 1. The obvious move would have been to repeat the formula and build upon that record’s success, but Ms. Cyrus returned in 2015 with “Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz,” created with members of the psychedelic rock band the Flaming Lips. It was personal, idiosyncratic and ultimately awful, with seriously underwritten and self-absorbed songs. When she came back in 2017 with the album “Younger Now,” Ms. Cyrus seemed as if she were trying to step out as a more mature artist, but much of it was just generic pop, and it had no real impact on music at large.

This year, Ms. Cyrus made waves with online videos of cover songs recorded at streaming festivals—Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” at the iHeartRadio Music Festival and the Cranberries’ “Zombie” at the Save Our Stages Festival, for example—and these appearances heralded another change in direction, this time toward early-1980s sounds at the intersection of glam rock and nervy new wave. “Plastic Hearts” (RCA), out now, extends these referential experiments to album length.

In the abstract, this is fertile aesthetic territory for Ms. Cyrus. Her voice is low and raspy, an instrument of force that’s not particularly nimble, and it ably cuts through a wall of distorted guitar chords. She showcases that sound from the opening track, “WTF Do I Know,” a song that focuses on making your way and not caring what the masses think and features an explosive chorus and a heavily processed guitar solo that instantly brings to mind the sound of early MTV. Andrew Watt, who came up playing alternative rock and has worked with artists including Ozzy Osbourne, Post Malone and dance producer Marshmello, serves as co-writer and producer on much of the album and plays many instruments here. He gives the record its distinctive sheen, which looks to the ’80s for influences while displaying the mechanized precision of contemporary pop.

“Plastic Hearts” is proudly referential—if Ms. Cyrus finds inspiration in a particular tune from the past, she’s apt to incorporate it wholesale and make it the centerpiece of a new song. The advance single “Midnight Sky,” which comes halfway through this record and is easily one of its best tracks, was inspired by Stevie Nicks’s 1981 number “Edge of Seventeen.” Ms. Cyrus takes its clipped “ooh” exclamation and sticks it into her own song, but later in the album she goes even further: A remix called “Edge of Midnight” mashes up the two songs and splices in Ms. Nicks’s vocals from the original. The sixth track, “Night Crawling,” has both the voice of Billy Idol and a “C’Mon, c’mon!” refrain that brings to mind his 1981 recording “Mony Mony.” And then “Bad Karma,” which features Joan Jett, begins with a glam-rock throb that closely mirrors the drums on the rocker’s 1980 version of “Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah).”

Ms. Cyrus’s source materials for these last two tracks were themselves covers: Mr. Idol tackled the 1968 original from Tommy James and the Shondells, while Ms. Jett’s song was first recorded by Gary Glitter. When the guests, covers and interpolations pile up they sometimes bury Ms. Cyrus, obscuring her own perspective. And the album closes with those two covers that introduced the world to Ms. Cyrus’s new direction—a crunchy version of “Heart of Glass” that trades Debbie Harry’s ethereal purr for Ms. Cyrus’s sneer, and a take on “Zombie” so rocked-up that it sounds like Nirvana.

At its worst, “Plastic Hearts” seems like a genre exercise, where nailing the sounds and styles of the past is more important than expressing anything in particular, but there are moments of genuine emotion. “Never Be Me,” about a broken relationship and self-doubt (“If you’re looking for stable, that’ll never be me / But I hope that I’m able to be all that you need”), is a moving showcase of Ms. Cyrus’s mix of strength and vulnerability, and “Golden G String,” despite some cringe-inducing lines, is an affecting reckoning with the singer’s tabloid past (“I was tryin’ to own my power / Still I’m tryin’ to work it out / And at least it gives the paper somethin’ they can write about”). Ms. Cyrus’s sincerity and affection for these styles is never in doubt. But the best tracks on “Plastic Hearts” owe a lot to our collective memories of earlier songs, which makes it conceptually interesting but ultimately unimpressive as a full-length statement.


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