Photo Credit: Brianna Capozzi
Miley Cyrus has long been one of the 21st century’s most powerful and evocative vocalists, but it wasn’t until recently that she found an appropriate sonic palette for her powerhouse voice – abandoning the Top 40 pop stylings of her early work, the bizarre experiments of Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz and the drab country-pop of Younger Now in exchange for ’80s glam-rock homages with Plastic Hearts. Cyrus spent the era covering rock classics – from Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” to The Cranberries’ “Zombie” and Hole’s “Violet” – with expert ease and passion. But the real triumph of Plastic Hearts was that Cyrus managed to pen 12 originals that were an equally effective showcase of her many, oft-misused talents. “Midnight Sky” ranks among her best dancefloor-ready anthems, while “Angels like You” remains a staggering triumph of songwriting; a heart-wrenching meditation on self-destruction and ill-fated love.
When Cyrus returned at the start of this year with “Flowers,” it felt like a regression; a restrained, tasteful piece of synth-pop with an anti-climactic chorus that lacks the charm of the best pop hooks even after being heard again and again on the radio. The colorlessness of “Flowers” betrayed the fact that Cyrus can write great pop tunes – and has done so previously many a time. For good reason, “Wrecking Ball” remains the template for former child stars seeking to shed the veneer of innocence. While “Party in the USA” has already entered the canon of classic America-songs; an ecstatic, patriotic anthem that famously rocketed up the charts in November 2020 after becoming the impromptu anthem for those taking to the streets to celebrate Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump.
On “Jaded” Cyrus briefly makes good on her knack for pop songcraft – a care-free Summer bop with a sugar-rush, ear-worm chorus that lives up to the expectations set by the album title Endless Summer Vacation. The album’s only non-“Flowers” single, “River,” is a maximalist mishmash. Sounding like three songs in the campaign in one, it alternates between slinky, retro synth-pop, a psychedelic chorus, and sprechgesang speak-singing that recalls Madonna’s “Vogue.” It’s a big, messy swing at camp, but there’s an inexplicable charm to its chaos – for better or for worse, Miley has always been at her most captivating when she’s doing entirely too much. Although, there are limits to how far this philosophy can stretch, and “Handstand” is plainly one, whiplash-inducing step too far – a crunchy, compressed, imposing number whose lyrics fare poorly under close scrutiny.
Where Endless Summer Vacation succeeds, it often feels like it does so in spite of itself – Miley’s vocal charisma compensating for a soundscape that refuses to play to her strengths. “You” is a good song – comfortably sitting in the top quarter of all of Cyrus’ songs. It’s easily the lyrical high-point of Endless Summer Vacation, beginning with affective yearning (“I wanna set off alarms, deal out the cards // Smoke Cuban cigars and get kicked out of bars before two // But only if it’s with you”) and moving towards bittersweet reckoning (“I got some baggage…I am not made for no horsey and carriage”). But it’s hard not to think about how much better, how much more alive the song sounded when Cyrus debuted it live on New Year’s Day 2023 – the horns and guitars complementing Cyrus’ belting perfectly, embedding it with an unmistakable classic rock charm. On the album, Cyrus’ voice does a lot of heavy lifting but the arrangements remain frustratingly static.
Part of the charm of going on vacation is transience; it always ends a little bit too soon and leaves you wanting a little bit more. But even at just 43 minutes, Endless Summer Vacation drags. After a first eight-track run that contained more hits than misses, the album abruptly hits a nadir with the trap-beats-meet-balladry of “Muddy Feet,” a sign-off to an unfaithful ex lacking the requisite venom. The penultimate, platitude-heavy “Wonder Woman,” meanwhile, is a drab ballad centered around ill-inspired lyrical motifs and a suffocating sense of self-seriousness. By the time the album finishes with a demo version of “Flowers,” it’s clear that it is time to leave.