A decade and a half after she started making records — first as her Disney Channel alter ego, Hannah Montana, then as herself (or maybe “herself”) — Miley Cyrus on her eighth studio album sounds like a woman looking back at everywhere she’s been, both musically and emotionally, and assessing where all her travels have put her now, newly divorced and having just entered her 30s.
The LP is called “Endless Summer Vacation,” which gets at the coolly euphoric country-disco vibe of a song like “Flowers,” the smash lead single that spent six weeks atop Billboard’s Hot 100 on its way to racking up more than a billion streams. But the true subject of these dozen tunes (plus a bonus-track demo of “Flowers”) is the hard work of introspection and the even harder work of self-reliance.
“I love when you hold me / But loving you is never enough,” she sings in “Wildcard,” the sting of acceptance still fresh in her voice, “Don’t wait for me / ‘Cause forever may never come.”
How to account for the enormous success of “Flowers”? Though she’s never lacked for showbiz visibility — see her recent New Year’s Eve TV special where she sang with Dolly Parton and David Byrne — Cyrus was a long way from her previous No. 1, 2013’s “Wrecking Ball,” when she recorded the winning empowerment jam with Kid Harpoon and Tyler Johnson, the same duo that produced Harry Styles’ Grammy-winning “Harry’s House.” And perhaps their golden touch had something to do with it; perhaps it’s the lyrical and melodic DNA the song shares with Bruno Mars’ chart-topping “When I Was Your Man,” a supposed favorite of Cyrus’ ex-husband actor Liam Hemsworth.
But “Flowers,” which fans have heard as an explicit response to “When I Was Your Man,” also captures this veteran shapeshifter in just the right spot: peeved but amused, shady yet sincere.
Thematically, “Endless Summer Vacation” revolves around Cyrus’ split from Hemsworth; she fondly recalls some of their good times, identifies red flags that arose eventually, ponders the pleasures and the complications of singledom and finally rediscovers a longing for romance. (In addition to Johnson and Kid Harpoon and other established pop pros such as Greg Kurstin, Tobias Jesso Jr. and Mike Will Made It, the singer’s studio collaborators here include her current boyfriend, musician Maxx Morando.)
Stylistically, the songs pull from all over the place. Like the actor she is, Cyrus in the past used each of her albums to explore a single genre: hip-hop on “Bangerz,” psychedelia on “Her Dead Petz,” country music on “Younger Now” — remember that before she was a Disney kid she was the daughter of Billy Ray Cyrus — and hard rock on “Plastic Hearts.” Yet “Endless Summer Vacation” jams together bits of all that stuff as she moves through heartbreak to savor the clarity that follows.
What holds the music together is Cyrus’ singing, which stood out easily from the likes of Selena Gomez and the Jonas Brothers in the mid-2000s and which still feels distinct now that she’s competing with SZA and Taylor Swift. In “Jaded” and “Muddy Feet,” she emphasizes the grainy texture in her voice over stomping rock grooves; “Rose Colored Lenses” has her rounding the edges of each phrase with a woozy sensuality. Brandi Carlile shows up to belt alongside Cyrus in the blippy-folky “Thousand Miles,” but she hangs back in the mix, limiting herself to ghostly high harmonies against Cyrus’ low growl.
“River” and “Violet Chemistry” are the album’s most rhythmic cuts, with Cyrus doling out quick staccato lines amid ravey synths played in part in the latter by James Blake. And “You” is the album’s vocal centrepiece: a saloon-ready retro-soul ballad à la Rihanna’s “Love on the Brain” in which Cyrus channels the yearning of someone gingerly entering a new relationship and that same someone’s reluctance to get hurt again.
Indeed, her singing is vivid enough on “Endless Summer Vacation” to make up for some mushy songwriting here and there: “Fingers start to dance along the figures and the shapes,” goes one line in “Violet Chemistry,” “mixing all the colours like we’re making a Monet.” (Yikes.)
But to get too hung up on a cringey lyric is to miss the point of Miley Cyrus at this phase of her weird, winding, one-of-one career. As she puts it in “Thousand Miles”: “I’m out of my mind / But still I’m holding on like a rolling stone.”