Miley Cyrus finds home in herself with ‘Plastic Hearts’

Plastic Hearts, RCA Records

Foam fingers, bleached hair, cowboy boots, and psychedelics. Transcendent Disney star Miley Cyrus has become perhaps the most commercially experimental millennial artist to graduate from the Disney Channel.

Since her days on Hannah Montana, Cyrus has had a good girl gone bad moment in her third album Can’t Be Tamed, taken it one step further in the instantly viral and often superb Bangerz, and stripped herself back down in an effort to mature with the misdirected Younger Now. The streamline throughout her discography up to this point is its innate consideration of reputation and public perception.

In reaction to her Disney days, Cyrus contradicted her image by releasing Can’t Be Tamed and Bangerz. In contrast, Younger Now revealed a Miley Cyrus once again pivoting away from what the public expected. The back-to-roots project was stripped bare, unfortunately erasing much of the singer’s edge in the process.

With her seventh studio album, Plastic Hearts, the developing singer/songwriter finally lets go of that image in what will likely come to be known as the quintessential Miley Cyrus album; it’s an equation of her inspirations, her past sounds, and her growing control over her sonic style. It has pop, it has rock, it has alt. It’s a dazzling, often restrained showcase of an artist who continues to evolve, ripping apart the plastic to reveal a more authentic version of herself.

The album opens with the scathing “WTF Do I Know,” decidedly leaving off a question mark in the title. More of a statement than a longing for answers, the track immediately sets the tone. Cyrus has evolved on the introduction. She’s shed the scars of her relationships, turning her attention inward to her own growth. This unapologetic attitude is undeniably empowered and Cyrus has never sounded more confident. The sonic references to “Start All Over” from her Hannah Montana days is just an added treat to this kiss off.

The album quickly sinks deeper into a more thoughtful string of songs in “Plastic Hearts” and “Angels Like You.” There’s a level of self-reflexive apathy present on the former that aptly fits the overall album theme. Featuring a Rolling Stones inspired sound bed, “Plastic Hearts” is a groovy tune that encapsulates the album. It isn’t overly adventurous or all that exciting, but it gets the artist’s message across.

Similar is “Angels Like You,” the first moment of empathy from Cyrus on the record. She reflects on a previous relationship here, offering her kind words and understanding to her past love. The self-assuredness on this track is an astonishing showcase of the singer’s growth. She knows herself, and knows the relationship is doomed. Her lover is too kindhearted to survive a relationship with the firey Miley.

Similar is the penultimate track on the album, “Never Be Me.”

Cyrus provides listeners with context into her state of mind throughout the chorus. She expresses her lack of fidelity, stability, and desire to manage someone else’s baggage. Its one of the highlights of the album, beautifully presenting an artist growing into herself and her prime. From a technical standpoint, Cyrus’ vocals have never sounded more emotive or poignant.

While Plastic Hearts loaded with surprisingly softer ballads, that isn’t to say the album has some head thrashing bangers. The first of which is the undeniable Dua Lipa collaboration, “Prisoner.” Both singers lend a level of grit to the anthem, running from a doomed love throughout the song. This momentum continues on one of the most fun tracks on the album, “Gimme What I Want.” With a murky electric guitar riff and a frivolous Cyrus looking for instant gratification, it’s awesome.

Cyrus also finds new ways of expressing herself on the record through duets with her inspirations in Billy Idol and Joan Jett. On “Night Crawling” with Idol, she adopts his signature sound with an 80s-rock single. It’s “Blinding Lights” meets Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” the blending of new and old that has dominated pop this year, the sound also laying the foundation of lead single “Midnight Sky.”

Underneath the spectrum of rock that dominates the sound of Plastic Hearts are more vulnerable showcases of the singer’s evolution. On “Hate Me,” Cyrus finds a stylish way to contemplate her own death in the context of her past loves and friendships. Like “Plastic Hearts,” it isn’t all that interesting or boundary pushing, but the lyrics on top of the standard backing is enough to compel listeners.

Improving upon “Hate Me” is the Mark Ronson assisted standout “High.” A rare perspective from Cyrus on this album, it showcases her longing for a past relationship. Its the matured successor to Bangerz opener “Adore You.” For the first time in her career, the singer successfully blends her sonic inspirations with the track. Country twang blend with traditional rock sensibilities to curate a perfect atmosphere for the song’s content.

Plastic Hearts plays it safe more often than it should, but in reflecting on the artist’s recent work, this is only the beginning. It’s a career rebirth that will hopefully unlock the doors for more country rock leaning sensibilities.

Closing the album with “Golden G String,” the pop rock chameleon leaves listeners with a concise summary of her current mentality. Combing through the memories of her past and her mistakes, Cyrus finds closure in self-awareness.

“I was tryin’ to own my power. Still I’m tryin’ to work it out,” she coos. With Plastic Hearts, she finally does.

On ‘Future Nostalgia,’ Dua Lipa moves forward in reverse

“You want a timeless song, I wanna change the game,” challenges rising global superstar Dua Lipa on the opening line of her sophomore LP – the boldly titled Future Nostalgia.

"Future Nostalgia" Dua Lipa
Future Nostalgia, Warner Music UK

Does she do it? No. Is that okay? Yes. Future Nostalgia isn’t a game changer, but a blast from the past with a modern twist.

Lipa broke into the mainstream a few years ago with her global smash “New Rules.” The world was taken aback by her fearlessness, killer vocals, charisma, and that RASP. Oh, that rasp…

Now comes what many rising stars dread – the second album. What music industry figures consider a make or break moment for a pop artist, the second album separates a one hit wonder from an industry mainstay.

Many have tried, many have failed.

Late last year came Camila Cabello’s best foot, the hugely promoted flop that was Romance. Where Cabello failed, artists like Lorde have overcome the pressure of a second record. Her matured, fuller sound on Melodrama established Lorde as an artist, not just the shiny new toy she worried she had been.

With Future Nostalgia, Dua Lipa follows in the footsteps of women like Lorde. The album, deftly kept at a tight 11 tracks, tries not to overstay its welcome. It exists in a world inhabited by throwbacks to 80s synth-pop and disco. This focused selection pays off, almost too well.

Formulaic to a fault, the album is solid dance pop. Songs sound similar and themes become redundant, but there is enough fun to overlook these fallacies.

Future Nostalgia takes a few listens to fully grip the listener. Not unlike the nights out that begin with a hesitant first few shots, once the buzz kicks in its full speed ahead. Its the type of pop music that forces listeners to surrender, only to obsess after around the fourth or fifth listen.

Future Nostalgia‘s best timestamps are those that fully embrace disco. The pre-released standout remains “Don’t Start Now.” Her best song yet, the disco infused pop banger balances the futuristic, nostalgic thesis of the entire album with ease. Universal, timeless, and provocative, it’s the perfect escapist pop single.

Lipa’s charisma shines best on the single. She adopts a funky, sexy vernacular throughout the song. Her confidence seeps into the listener’s mind, completely taking over.

That confidence is soon reversed on the next track “Cool,” a bouncy instrumental on which Lipa tells listeners of a lover that has her so enamored she loses stability. Another highlight, the song is destined for that Sunday morning drive for coffee with some friends.

The sunset imagery of “Cool” turns to night and the party intensifies with the darker “Physical,” the second single from the album. “Physical” is the perfect example of the aforementioned slow burn effect of many of the record’s songs. Evoking not much more than an “eh” on first listen, the single soon becomes a head thrasher the more it’s played.

This rhythm continues on the club banger “Hallucinate” and the midtempo “Levitate.” Both fun tracks, they don’t quite excel to the heights of “Don’t Start Now.”

One of the more delightfully laid back moments on the album is on “Pretty Please.” Giving listeners an intermission from the rave, the sultry track is a nice break. While Lipa is the least interesting aspect of the track, the production is too much fun to overlook. It wonderfully merges the synth and disco sitting at the album’s center.

After the tounge-and-cheek outlier “Good In Bed,” Lipa closes the album with an orchestral feminist anthem “Boys Will Be Boys.” It’s an okay song, but it has no place on this record from a sonic standpoint. It feels jarring and ends the album with a question mark rather than an exclamation point.

The few inconsistencies and areas played safely are what prevent Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia from standing among the best dance records in pop. Instead the LP is a set piece for the brilliance to come.