September 10, 2015 6:18 AM EDT

Miley Cyrus has a knack for forcing her way to the center of attention at the MTV Video Music Awards. In 2013, her provocative writhing against “Blurred Lines” singer Robin Thicke helped make twerking a mainstream phenomenon. While hosting this year’s VMAs, Cyrus upstaged the likes of Kanye West and Taylor Swift by announcing that she was releasing a new streaming-only album for free that evening–a move that recalls Beyoncé’s unexpected 2013 album, which kicked off the recent trend of surprise releases.

Yet what stands out about the record titled Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz–at least one song was inspired by the death of her dog last year–is how much she’s not at the center of it. Her outfits are as garish as ever, but the music looks inward instead of at the camera. Cyrus’ voice is drowned in a tie-dye swirl of spacey guitars and ethereal keyboards that she dreamed up with Wayne Coyne, front man of the psychedelic-rock band the Flaming Lips, who produced several tracks. There’s a spare, demo-like quality to these melancholy tunes, several of which approach five or six minutes in length. Cyrus’ head is elsewhere too: “Yeah, I smoke pot/Yeah, I love peace,” she declares on the twitchy mission statement “Dooo It!” These songs aren’t just about lighting up and pondering the universe, but they’re all tailored for such activities.

All that meandering is by design, though. Cyrus completed Dead Petz without her record label’s involvement and claims sole writing credit on 10 of the 23 songs, including some of the album’s best. With a little self-editing and polish, the strongest ideas here could become more recognizable and digestible pop songs, but that would be beside the point. This isn’t meant to be a conventional Miley Cyrus album–she’s attempting something far more creatively fulfilling. Dead Petz is a bold young pop star’s attempt at figuring out what she stands for, questioning everything from drugs and sexual politics to the music industry and the limits of her sound. The rough-around-the-edges songs likely won’t satisfy listeners the same way they do their creator, but her process is still fascinating to watch. Even when Cyrus isn’t demanding our attention, she manages to hold it anyway.

–NOLAN FEENEY

This appears in the September 21, 2015 issue of TIME.

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

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