Miley Cyrus Spends Her ‘Endless Summer Vacation’ Deftly Balancing Mellow Gold and Dance-Pop: Album Review
Most of Miley Cyrus’ albums have been pretty high-concept, in the musical styles they tried on for size. She didn’t come in like a wrecking ball so much as a pendulum. Successive records found her swinging back and forth — or sideways — from the pop-diva dominance she established with “Bangerz” to the one-woman back-to-roots movement of “Younger Now,” on up to the rockin’ new-wave revivalism of 2021’s “Plastic Hearts.” (Somewhere in there came her Flaming Lips collab… or probably we all just collectively dreamed that one, right?) Through it all was the sense that Cyrus was always working hard — too hard, sometimes — to establish that a new shift in direction was the real her, the one that’d really find her “just being Miley,” as a seminal hit of hers once promised.
Her new album, “Endless Summer Vacation,” doesn’t really sound much like any of those previous records. But to its credit, it doesn’t sound like another conscious reinvention, either. Which is maybe one reason why it’s one of her most enjoyable albums: by virtue of being just a little too slippery to paste a tag on. The throughly massive hit single that preceded it into the culture a couple of months ago, “Flowers,” seemed to promise a belated divorce album in the confessional style that’s come back into fashion. Guess what? It’s not! “Flowers,” inevitably positioned as the opening track, marks the first and last time on the record you will spend any amount of time hypothesizing about Liam Hemsworth. (Well, maybe not literally the last, because the album closes with a quiet demo version of “Flowers,” but an extended bout of revenge writing is not really where her head is at.) The succeeding songs don’t get too stuck in the single’s post-Dua Lipa brand of disco thump, but neither is there even a hint of revisiting the previous album’s Blondie-isms for a second.
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Having established what “Endless Summer Vacation” isn’t, then, what is it? For lack of a better unifying descriptor: relaxed, at least to the extent that anyone as alpha as Cyrus can be. That’s not to say that the album is as lazy, or laissez-faire, as the title might make it sound. But it’s a fairly unpretentious pop record that has some stylistic micro-shifts that don’t announce themselves too proudly or loudly. In touting the album in advance, Cyrus has described it as having a prettier “a,m.” first half — as in morning, not the radio frequencies — and a slinkier “p.m.” second half. That terminology almost makes it sound like a mini-market… and it kind of is a pop convenience store, come to think of it, in offering a nice, quick selection of mostly easily digestible fare.
But there might be a different way of getting at how she’s subtly divided the record up into parts. Following the kickoff with “Flowers,” tracks 2-5 stay on the more organic side of things, sort of like a vintage soft-rock record. (Albeit one not nearly as sleepily pastoral as “Younger Now.”) Then things take a weird turn with an oddball centerpiece called “Handstand,” before tracks 7-11 head off into the realm of modern programming and moody, excitable synth-pop. The final two numbers in the 13-song collection represent another 180, reverting to a purely acoustic mode. None of these announce themselves with chapter stops, but they do lend the record not just variety but oddly satisfying bouts of momentums and dynamics. The first half leans wistful — yes, you could almost say flowery — and the second is a little more about Cyrus as your favorite demon lover.
It’s good to know that 2007’s “Hannah Montana 2: Meet Miley Cyrus” didn’t have to be the last album she’d ever put out with a split personality, in other words.
Marrying the shifting tones of the material is the fact that Cyrus is almost never pushing things too hard vocally. She can still belt, still grrrrowl, but uses those parts of her chops more as accents that stand out in these songs when she brings them out of her toolbox. On much of “Endless Summer Vacation,” she’s playing down the vocal drama and gymnastics that it might not always be immediately identifiable as her, in a blindfold test, though her aggressiveness as a singer does not stay in remission indefinitely. The singer just knows her inner Joan Jett doesn’t need to rev up its engines when she’s mellowing out with a minimalist, rhythm-section-based ballad like “Rose Colored Glasses” or getting a little more wacked out with a spooky avant-pop discursion like “Handstand.”
There are a couple of features in the album credits — by Brandi Carlile and Sia — but fans of either should be forewarned that the star billing doesn’t amount to much in either case. Carlile provides a background vocal on the back half of the sweet “Thousand Miles,” but it’s buried so far down in the mix, it’s not clear why Cyrus bothered to bring in outside support. Sia at least gets some lead lines on “Muddy Feet,” which she co-wrote, but doesn’t put in her short appearance till the song has reached its coda.
At least the latter track has a little tension to it. Or a lot; actually, we erred earlier in saying that the remainder of the album after “Flowers” is free of Liam content. Because the repeated line “Get the fuck out of my house with that shit” has to be about somebody, so let’s suppose it’s not about someone Cyrus has managed to keep under wraps these last few years, just for the sake of argument and fun. Yes, “Muddy Feet” is one of the tracks where the growl returns — it earns it, on an album that otherwise isn’t firing too many shots across any bows.
Her fleetingly snarly tone there is less impressive, though, than the slightly jazzy feel she brings to the album-closing reprise of “Flowers,” which is kind of in the vein of one of Billie Eilish’s tradition-skirting numbers. Cyrus also plays it soft on “Wonder Woman,” an almost entirely piano-focused ballad you might presume is inspired by her mother, or some other stolid and occasionally sad role model — it sounds kind of like a feminist “Desperado.”
At the opposite extreme, energy-wise, is the just-released second single, “River,” which is full of retro synth sounds and Giorgio Morder-style goodness. Co-writers and producers Kid Harpoon and Tyler Johnson, who worked on about half the album, did not exhaust all the Studio 54 they had in their systems when they did the last Harry Styles record, as it turns out, although most of what they do with Cyrus here is less blatantly aimed at the radio or dance floor. Those two are slippery people, too.
The album has a listless moment or two. “Island,” buried late in the track list, is an odd number that never quite works, even with an interesting key change between the tense verses and the tropical choruses, courtesy of collaborator BJ Burton. Having Cyrus repeat the same lines over and over again — “Am I stranded on an island? Or have I landed in paradise?” — makes the song sound less existential than like a repetitive Christian praise chorus gone awry.
There’s so much to like here, though, starting, of course, with “Flowers.” It’s derivative, in an “I Will Survive” meets “Lose You to Love Me” meets “Don’t Start Now” kind of way, but that’s no knock. That’s followed by the one contribution Greg Kurstin has as a writer-producer, “Jaded,” which is pure mellow-gold in its generous and breezy approach to the end of a love affair. It brings up the classic question: What’s so bad about feeling good about feeling bad? (For all its radio-friendliness, “Jaded” also includes the first of enough F-bombs on the album that there’s surely going to be a lot of judicious bleeping in the record’s accompanying Disney+ special.)
“You” is another first-half standout, in the form of a very boozy, very sentimental 6/8 torch song in a very old-school R&B mode. That makes for quite a contrast against the deliciously oddball, highly electronic song that follows, “Handstand,” produced by the Regrettes’ Maxx Morando, with lyrics so funny and uncharacteristic that it may be safe to guess they are the handiwork of credited co-writer Harmony Korine (yes, that Harmony Korine) bring this album as close as it’s going to get to her Flaming Lips one-off. “You’re questioning the science, ’cause you don’t understand / How I’m doing what I’m doing in a fucking handstand,” Cyrus sings, sounding a little like the recently ultra-empowered Taylor Swift, but on an even higher dosage of cockiness steroids (or acid).
Really, though, Cyrus has always seemed more like a weed girl — and “Endless Summer Vacation” mixes the kind of peaceful, easy feeling you associate with that sensibility with some very pure pop instincts. It’s not the kind of album you want to oversell; more definitive statements or craftier strings of singles may lie in her future. For now, though, it’s nice to see her succeeding more by sweating less. The album cover sets the tone nicely: Cyrus is not coming in like a wrecking ball, but as — sure — something of a trapeze artist, one who right about now might be too high to fail.
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