Last year Miley Cyrus starred in an episode of Black Mirror as Ashley O, a carbon-copy pop star forced to pump out hit after saccharine hit. When the real Ashley begins rebelling and writing increasingly dark and experimental material, her management puts her into a coma and wheels out a replacement hologram to perform instead – her biggest song, ‘On A Roll’, is a watered-down bubblegum-flavoured version of Nine Inch Nails ‘Head Like a Hole’.
Though Cyrus’ own journey is far less drastic, her story still shares a few parallels. Cyrus began her career by playing fictional teen pop star Hannah Montana. Since then – she retired the character in 2011 – the singer has spent much time trying to escape this clean-cut Disney narrative. It has led her in multiple different directions: from the provocative garishness of 2013 album ‘Bangerz’ to vaguely psychedelic pop with The Flaming Lips (they formed the band Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz). “There were some obvious similarities [between Ashley O and] the character that I’ve played before that actually really became my life,” she told Variety earlier this year.
In that Black Mirror episode (spoiler alert) Ashley O breaks free and becomes a thrashing rock star. When they filmed her fictional escape from polished chart-pop, Cyrus had just learned she had lost her Malibu home to the 2018 California wildfire, along with every songwriting journal she owns. This disaster was the first of a chain of events which saw Cyrus’ life upended in a number of ways; she subsequently married and then split from actor Liam Hemsworth and played a career-defining set at Glastonbury, head-banging to Metallica and Led Zeppelin atop a giant speaker-stack on the Pyramid stage.
She also announced – and later scrapped – a trilogy of EPs, originally supposed to culminate in a new album called ‘She Is Miley Cyrus’. Earlier this week, Cyrus told Zane Lowe in an Apple Music interview: “The last three years, I called the cocktail of chaos, because [the universe] just felt like the worst bartender ever… [It] just kept pouring this shit… and you’re dizzy off it”.
Now, all of this comes to a head. With album seven, Miley Cyrus attempts to meld together her innate knack for truly enormous pop bangers (see: ‘Wrecking Ball’, Party in the U.S.A’, ‘We Can’t Stop’) together with a love of rock’n’roll and country music, which has thus far not been hugely evident on her previous releases. While 2017 album ‘Younger Now’ found her heading out with a similar mission in mind, the brief didn’t quite come to fruition; there was newfound maturity on show, but not as much country-and-Western swagger. Fortunately, ‘Plastic Hearts’ possesses infinitely more grit – and, crucially, a freewheeling sense of fun.
The record’s standout ‘Midnight Sky’, a recent single, thumps with ‘80s synth-rock panache Cyrus’ gravelly vocal performance is the best of her career, and reminiscent of an especially rough-hewn Steve Nicks (who was sampled on the remix ‘Edge Of Midnight’, which mashed up the track with her 1982 hit ‘Edge Of Seventeen’). “See my lips on her mouth / Everybody’s talking now, baby” she sings gleefully. The singer is equally energised on the Dua Lipa-featuring ‘Prisoner’, as they meld the neo-disco of Lipa’s recent album ‘Future Nostalgia’ with Cyrus’ glam-rock tendencies, while also incorporating snippets of Olivia Newton-John’s 1981 track ‘Physical’.
Charged with an industrial undercurrent, ’Gimme What I Want’ also showcases a side of Cyrus that was previously only evident in her many, well-received rock covers. “I just need a lover,” she snarls atop the sort of brutally pulsing bassline that recalls Nine Inch Nails – ”So give me what I want / Or I’ll give it to myself”. ‘Bad Karma’, featuring rock icon Joan Jett, is propelled by a percussive sequence of suggestive groans and as they belt out one hell of a chorus.
Opener ‘WTF Do I Know’ succeeds in interpolating scuzzy guitars with peppy production polish. “I’m completely naked but I’m making it fashion,” Cyrus sings, nodding to the music video for ‘Wrecking Ball’, “Maybe getting married just to cause a distraction.” It’s overblown and playful, and a little reminiscent of Ashlee Simpson and Avril Lavigne’s best alt-pop moments.
Perhaps due to the power of the rock songs, the more sedate ballads have a tendency to feel like interludes. The exception here is the smoky ‘Golden G-String’: “The old boys hold all the cards and they ain’t playin’ gin,” Cyrus sings with a smirk, “You dare to call me crazy / Have you looked around this place?”. Though it’s hard to fault Cyrus’ honesty on ‘Hate Me’ or ‘Never Be Me’, moments such as the soaring choral flourishes of ‘High’ seem a little on-the-nose.
Overall, though, ‘Plastic Hearts’ finds the pop-star-turned-rock-star going hell for leather – and when Miley Cyrus is at full throttle, it’s an absolute blast. Life has imitated art, and she’s become her very own Ashley O.
Release date: November 27
Release label: RCA