Multiple Miley Cyruses exist in pop culture. There’s the beaming kid who moonlights as Hannah Montana, the generic pop star who gifted the world with “Party in the U.S.A,” the infamous tongue-protruding, scare-the-squares provocateur of Bangerz, the burnout hippie freak from Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz and the level-headed country crooner on Younger Now, to name a few.
So who shows up on Plastic Hearts? Well, everyone, including some new personas and old friends. The album’s a party atmosphere; more often than not, that makes it a fun, silly pop album about getting wasted and prowling the night without the nagging responsibility of considering consequences.
Like a good host, Cyrus invites some of her influences and peers to join the action, including Billy Idol, Joan Jett and Stevie Nicks, who all play into the album’s attempt at approximating a more rock sound. Weirdly, it’s not any of the rock god guests who make the album more rock — instead, it’s Cyrus’ own raspy, throaty howl. Her voice really does sound different, more aggressive and less processed. Jett is clearly Cyrus’ vocal muse: Cyrus sometimes strains to match what Jett does so effortlessly on “Bad Karma,” but on other songs, the grit in Cyrus’ voice is easily the most interesting feature.
Just like Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell!, Plastic Hearts wears its classic rock influence on its sleeve. The lyrical references I picked up on included: “California Dreamin’,” “Born to Run,” Rolling Stone, “I Walk the Line” and “Play With Fire.” Even the non-referential lines seem to indicate an older time. “Golden G String,” the final and most essential track, talks about giving “the papers something they can write about,” even though the gossip mill that Cyrus is referring to happened almost exclusively online. I’m cool with throwback vibes, but they don’t seem to serve any kind of bigger purpose on the record. It just sounds like Cyrus was listening to a lot of vinyls and stayed in that mindset.
Unlike a lot of modern musicians, I’m not a fan of bringing in OneRepublic impresario Ryan Tedder to help out with songwriting. Whether it’s his contributions to Chris Cornell’s Scream, Taylor Swift’s 1989 or Paul McCartney’s Egypt Station, he tends to make everything a lot more generic and uninspired. That’s the problem with the front half of Plastic Hearts; songs such as “WTF Do I Know” and “Night Crawling” and even (tragically) the Dua Lipa collaboration, “Prisoners,” blend together in a stew of bright hooks and rock guitars. Not by coincidence, the album starts to become more fascinating musically and lyrically once Tedder’s name stops appearing in the song writing credits.
A little past halfway through Plastic Hearts, the songs start to slow down and the hedonistic tendencies become more contemplative. Tracks such as “Never Be Me” and “Golden G String” are the hangover to the constant party of the prior ten tracks, and these are the songs that I keep going back to on relistens. They feel less disposable and more essential to figuring out who Cyrus currently is as an artist.
Plastic Hearts aims for fatalistic fun followed by contemplative catharsis, but the album is really at its best when it pares down the layers of production and excessive songwriters, instead going for simple, direct and really catchy songs.
I guess my problem with Plastic Hearts is that it bridges the past and the present, but doesn’t really look at all to the future. Maybe that’s the point: it’s a “Live in the now, don’t worry about tomorrow” kind of album. Except when it isn’t. And it’s in those moments when Cyrus drops the nonstop nightcrawler persona that I found myself really interested in what she had to say.
Every album that Cyrus has put out is completely unique from the ones that came before it, but Plastic Hearts is the first time that Cyrus doesn’t feel like she’s making a major side step. Maybe Plastic Hearts will be seen as her “rock” album, and if you want to turn off your brain for some easy, catchy fun, by all means I know you’ll find it here. But I’m already more interested in what’s coming next than what Cyrus just gave us.