The album cover of Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz on SoundCloud.
By Nolan Feeney
August 31, 2015

Miley Cyrus is used to forcing her way to the center of attention. At the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, she upstaged much-hyped, dueling performances from Lady Gaga and Katy Perry with the twerk heard ’round the world. Two years later, returning to the program as a host, Cyrus may have stolen the show from Kanye West (whose acceptance speech was a masterclass in slightly stoned trolling) or at least Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj (who performed together after a high-profile Twitter spat) by closing out the ceremony and announcing—oh yeah—that she was releasing an album for free online that very evening.

Yet what stands out about that album, titled Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, is how much she’s not at the center of it all—at least at first. Her head is elsewhere: “Yeah, I smoke pot/ Yeah, I love peace,” she cries on the twitchy opening number “Dooo it!,” which she debuted at Sunday’s awards show in a sea of drag queen contestants from RuPaul’s Drag Race. These 23 tracks are meant for lighting up and pondering the universe, if they’re not about indulging in those activities explicitly. More than half of them top four minutes in length, and several approach five or six. Being in the moment, at least in this dimension, is hardly the goal.

It isn’t just subject matter that accounts for Cyrus’ low-key presence, however. The songs themselves push her voice deep into the mix behind fuzzy guitars and ethereal keyboards she dreamed up with Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, who lends his psychedelic touch to several songs. (In particular, his fingerprints are all over the “Yoshimi”-esque “Karen Don’t Be Sad.”) The tracks resemble leaked demos more than they do songs from Cyrus’ last album, 2013’s flashy Bangerz. There is a rough, homemade quality to the these sketches, even though master beatsmith and Bangerz architect Mike WiLL Made-It returned to the boards to produce a few songs. With a little self-editing and polish, some of the strongest ideas here could be transformed into more recognizable and digestible pop songs, but doing so would be beside the point.

Dead Petz is a collection of unhurried, un-airbrushed stoner-pop; it’s not a conventional Miley Cyrus album, and it can’t really be judged as one. It reportedly cost a fraction of what Bangerz did to make, it does not count toward her multi-album contract with RCA Records and Cyrus only presented the album to her label after it was complete. Because of that last fact, though, it feels more representative of Cyrus than anything else she’s done. “When I made Bangerz, it was as true to me then as this record is now,” she said in a recent New York Times interview about the making of the album. “It just happened naturally in my head. It’s like anything—styles just change.” She claims sole writing credits on 10 of 23 songs, and while some of those are more like interludes than complete compositions, others rank among the album’s best material (“Space Boots,” “Fweaky,” “Lighter”). All that negative space observed earlier, it turns out, is by her very design.

When Cyrus returns to earth, she proves to be a captivating performer. Dead Petz is Cyrus as we’ve never heard her before: her husky voice croaks, squeals and makes the kind of noises even the most adventurous pop singers try and avoid, but it’s that color and character that make her adept at channeling whatever pain she’s feeling into her music. This won’t come as a surprise to listeners who’ve kept close tabs on her evolution from Hannah Montana to headline fixture. Her 2013 guest appearance on Snoop Lion’s “Ashtrays and Heartbreaks,” the first real taste of her hip-hop makeover that year, was a surprisingly poignant gut-punch about staving off darkness and creeping isolation. Some of Dead Petz, evident from the project’s name, was inspired by the death of her dog Floyd, and if the album’s songs about loss and depression don’t make you feel something, you might be patient zero in a real-life Fear the Walking Dead situation. (The way Cyrus shuts down a partner’s lovey-dovey PDA on “BB Talk” suggests she hasn’t lost her sense of humor, either.)

Because Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz is one of the most prominent surprise releases to drop since Beyoncé first turned her name into a verb in 2013, it’s hard not to think of its predecessor. If Beyoncé’s self-titled “visual album,” arriving with 17 exquisite music videos, represented the full, unbridled execution of Beyoncé’s singular vision, Cyrus’ record is the promising formation of one. Here is one of the boldest young pop stars identifying what she stands for, questioning everything from drugs and sexual politics to the business of the music industry and the limits of her sound. The VMAs performance in which Cyrus announced her surprise album was as garish as one might expect from artist whose adult-career philosophy could be summed up with the words, “Look at me!” But with her Dead Petz project, Cyrus does the musical equivalent of pivoting away from the cameras’ gaze in search of something more fulfilling. The songs may not satisfy listeners the same way, but the process behind them is fascinating to watch. Even when Cyrus isn’t demanding our attention, she manages to hold it anyway.

Write to Nolan Feeney at nolan.feeney@time.com.

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