Miley Cyrus was the queen of the orchestrated breakdown. She’s the one artist we, as pop culture consumers, have all been simultaneously taken aback by; left with mouths agape at the bare-faced genius of a pop star placing herself in what effectively felt like career free fall. Four years ago, as Bangerz was tearing up the charts and the woman behind it was seen toking joints and twerking to her heart's content, it was strange to think back upon Miley’s ‘butter wouldn’t melt’ roots as a Disney star. But just as expertly as Cyrus crafted her own descent into insanity, so too has she managed to pull herself back up again, emerging from the rubble of the electro-rap earthquake into a realm of heartfelt, surprisingly simple pop-rock. There’s no denying that Miley has lived in an adult’s life since she became a teenage idol; Younger Now marks the moment she reclaims and embraces the wistful, warm naivety she lost out on somewhere along the way.
Opening with the sound of rain on rooftops, the ribbits of frogs and a few solemn guitar chords, the album’s title track makes it clear that the narcotizing blur of partying, drugs and salacious behaviour are in Miley’s past, and she’s wrapping herself up in the halcyon days of youth to counteract them. “Feel like I’ve just woke up” she announces, “Even though it’s not who I am, I’m not afraid of who I used to be.” Even if you haven’t seen those angelic, surprising new single covers, you can tell sonically that things have changed. Her production and songwriting, once a cacophony of bright noise and foul-mouthed fun, has been stripped back to the bare minimum; it’s here where Miley appears that she’s in her prime.
There’s a similar instance of self-inflicted musical heart surgery as Miley opens herself up on the acoustic ballad "Miss You So Much." A song that’s bound to grace the Spotify accounts of 15-year-olds feeling lovesick, Miley takes a traditional, overwrought style of love song and twists it with her vocal performance into something that makes us sympathize with her. “You can take my blood, my bones, my heart is yours; I volunteer,” she sings, “but how can I miss you so much when you’re right here?” She was once a body to many; an object of public and tabloid scrutiny, but this song is performed with such timidness and true vulnerability that we can’t help but feel connected to the seldom-seen person found beyond it.
So much of Younger Now is made up of this melancholic brand of songs dedicated to the tumultuous, on-and-off years she has spent with her current boyfriend, Liam Hemsworth. Inevitably, some don’t land as effectively as others, and the album regularly risks repeating the same message in different lyrical packages on quite a few occasions.
Admittedly, the first taster we got of the album, "Malibu," is a little too saccharine and unambitious to fully capture our attention, and it fails to do anything to lift up Younger Now as a whole. That being said, it fares better in the context of the full record than a weak standalone single, but it’s still just sincere, ably produced filler.
“I know that I gave you my heart, but you stomped it to the ground. And that’s what’s got me wondering what it’s like to not have you around,” Miley will ponder later, over the stomping beat of the break-up song "Week Without You." For a song that’s meant to act as a ‘fuck you’ to someone who doesn’t care to make an effort with you anymore, it feels afraid to hit the jugular, and lacks the guttural punch that usually makes her music – even her ballads – so memorable. Miley wrote the vast majority of Younger Now’s lyrics herself, and at times – for better or for worse – it shows. Her ballads might be a bit unreliable in terms of their enduring quality, but her desire to remain even remotely provocative with her politics still shines through.
Collaborating with country royalty (that also happens to be her godmother), the Dolly Parton-starrer "Rainbowland" is a catchy, idealist attempt at making a Trump-attack slice of sparkling woke pop that winds up sounding strangely apolitical. There are lots of references to “blue skies” and “being together”, her favorite themes that come up in "Malibu" too, but it fails to do what Lana Del Rey did so wonderfully on this year's Lust for Life: make an urgent political song sound freeing, warm and layered with lyrical subtext.
On "Love Someone," the kind of punch-in-the-gut anger that Younger Now desperately needs more of finally comes through. “It’ll be a cold day in hell before I’d ever be your wife,” Miley jibes monumentally, making a not so subtle dig at her current boyfriend’s reputation for being flakey with their relationship status. It’s a nice dose of energy in an album that’s purposefully pretty banger(z)-less.
For all of Younger Now’s shortcomings, we can’t knock Miley for understanding that she can bare her soul briefly. Clocking in at just over 40 minutes in length, she spends no time indulging in her pain or warbling senselessly about something her listener doesn’t care about – a common trait for the musician trying hard for the world to take them more seriously. Instead, she makes her points in a contained, impactful, ‘pop star’ manner – the only way she knows how to, really.
By swapping roaches for country rhinestones and drugs for love, Miley Cyrus has unveiled herself as the star we all expected her to become when she said goodbye to the House of Mouse six years ago. But thanks to the years of controversial baggage that has preceded it, Younger Now accurately represents the blissful reconsidering of a pop star’s soul in an industry that’s spent so long scrutinizing the move she would make next. It might not be the most remarkable record of the year, nor the most resonating of her already ambitious catalogue, but this album is made with more heart and personal intent than pop albums need to be, and we should give Miley some serious credit for that.
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