Just a few months ago, I would have been so excited for a new Miley Cyrus album. Earlier in the summer, the singer started posting YouTube videos of her “Backyard Sessions,” a series of stripped-down cover songs performed by Cyrus and friends like Joan Jett, Laura Jane Grace and Ariana Grande. Where these performances showcased Cyrus’s great, matured, husky voice, her newly launched Happy Hippie Foundation and smart quotes about gender fluidity and the epidemic of homelessness seemed to highlight a newfound awareness and social consciousness.
Miley Cyrus and her Dead Petz
Smiley Miley Inc.
These interviews and videos seemed to make clear that Cyrus’s next project would be dramatically different from her previous full-length: 2013’s Bangerz, a record with a pair of great singles and a lot of mediocre, faux-provocative, blackface-wearing pop music. Cyrus seemed poised for an organic-sounding folk/country record that, for better or worse, would announce her arrival as a legitimate, critically respectable artist.
But Cyrus has demonstrated in the last couple weeks that she can still be totally clueless about subjects like race and appropriation, and she blows up any expectations of artistic evolution from the second her new album begins. The very first line from the first song, which you might have heard if you watched her “outrageous” performance at the VMAs, is a heavily distorted “Yeah, I smoke pot” that gets laid over a standard trap beat practically cut-and-pasted from Bangerz. “Dooo It!” is a disappointing, near-insufferable beginning that feels forced and immature and sits in this weird negative zone between catchy pop and experimental avant-garde, picking up the good characteristics of neither.
The good news, though, is that “Dooo It!” might actually be one of the low points of the entire project. Recorded with psych-rock vets The Flaming Lips, Miley Cyrus and her Dead Petz is a 90-minute mess that you can’t help but appreciate even as it goes on forever and ever. The record is like a garage sale of Cyrus’s talents and ambitions, with different aspects of her artistry haphazardly hung and strewn about throughout its runtime. The sequencing is nonexistent — you might as well just play the whole thing on shuffle — and I really can’t imagine what this record is meant for or who will enjoy it, but it’s exciting to see a young artist experiment like Cyrus does, and you’re bound to find moments of greatness within its long, winding runtime.
The first half of Dead Petz can sometimes feel like flipping through a 500-page textbook looking for the one quote you need to cite in a paper. Frustrating but at times rewarding, very long, unmemorable songs are mixed in with obnoxiousness and beauty. Second track “Karen Don’t Be Sad” sounds remarkably similar to “Holes” by Mercury Rev, a band with whom the Lips have always been closely compared. It’s one of the stronger songs, with Cyrus showing instead of telling her drug use, letting it actually inform her work instead of just yelling about how high she is. However, songs like “Something About Space Dude” and “Space Boots” go on for way too long without any clear goals. These tracks sound like forgotten Flaming Lips album cuts recorded with a new frontperson, and it feels odd that Cyrus would choose to make this record with a veteran band in their 50s when she wants her sound to be so forward-thinking. Elsewhere, Mike Will Made It plays a key role, and though he delivers the danceable strength that made him famous, his presence on songs feels like much more of a callback to Bangerz than this album should be. Cyrus herself often sounds like she’s holding back, keeping her voice subtle or distorted instead of impressing by letting loose. On the awful forced monologue of “BB Talk,” she sounds like an actress reading off lines for a character she doesn’t even know, but other times, she can tap into a loose, breathy singer-songwriter mode that serves her well.
“Milky Milky Milk,” track 10 of 23, then becomes either the moment of abandonment or the point of no return. Another dreamy, jokey track with mediocre electronic experimentation, it’s a huge swing and a disappointing miss. But get past that, and the next song is “Cyrus Skies,” a slow, tense breakdown of a tune with despairing vocals and minimal instrumentation. That track kicks off a hypnotic comedown that produces Miley Cyrus and her Dead Petz’s most compelling work, with songs that are still messy and deconstructive but contain soul and complexity. There are still eye-roll moments where you really have to wonder how Cyrus thinks getting drunk and fucked up is worth bragging about, but other times, she shows hints of chameleonic geniuses like Lou Reed or Bjork. “I Get So Scared” is a guitar-strummer that gives the best glimpse of what a folksier Cyrus record would sound like, while “Lighter” is a Cocteau Twins/M83-style nighttime driving song that once again uses drugs as an influence rather than the whole substance of a song. “1 Sun,” meanwhile, takes MIA’s busy electro-punk chaos and turns it into this preachy garage-punk rave-up.
By the end of Dead Petz you feel like you’ve been swarmed by ideas and entranced by the unfamiliar tricks of Miley Cyrus. It’s worth asking “What the fuck is she doing?” here and there, but it’s also fun to sit back and absorb take in her obvious potential brilliance. The record concludes with a couple of twee piano ballads surrounding the questionable appropriation of “Miley Tibetan Bowlz.” “Pablow the Blowfish” made me smile in its cleverness even though it’s a eulogy for a dead pet, while “Twinkle Song” works because it’s one of the few Dead Petz tracks that puts Cyrus directly in the spotlight. She interesting and talented enough that you care when she opens her mouth and says something honest, even if she’s just talking about some dream she had, and when the album closes with her truly showing off how wild and unhinged her voice can get (think Stevie Nicks on “Edge of Seventeen”), it’s truly satisfying.
The weirdest thing about Miley Cyrus and her Dead Petz, to me, is how truly unclassifiable it is. That works in its favor, as it’s worth listening to at least for its experimental uniqueness, but it also means it doesn’t fit into any easy recommendation. I don’t know who would love this album, or when you would want to play it. I only know that its creator has plenty of talent and ambition, even if she screws up a lot, and I love hearing her when she succeeds. Drugged-up with her head spinning, feeling fuzzy as she explores all that she’s capable of, Cyrus still hasn’t escaped from the influence of the artists who inspire her or from her own occasional bad judgments, but on Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, you can hear her pressing her hands against the walls, pushing out to try and make something truly original.