Wednesday, September 2, 2015

album review: 'miley cyrus & her dead petz' by miley cyrus

None of you should be surprised this happened.

Think about it, the signs were all there. From the VMA performance in 2013 that catapulted Miley Cyrus back into the public eye for better or worse to the album Bangerz, a record that was really all over the place to be salvaged beyond a few genuine gems, to the uneasy collaborations with hip-hop artists that created abortions like '23'. For a solid six months on the back half of 2013, Miley was dominant in the cultural conversation, for better or worse, and then it all fizzled out. In my opinion, she crippled her own momentum by releasing 'Adore You' under the delusion that song had any hope of being a hit instead of the near guaranteed smash and genuinely awesome song 'FU'.

And then came the rumours leaking out that Miley had gone back into the studio to work and do drugs with Wayne Coyne and later showed up on his Beatles tribute album With A Little Help From My Fwends, so you knew the favour was bound to be returned in full. It became even more evident when Miley severed her ties to Dr. Luke - the same producer who prevented Kesha's collaboration album with The Flaming Lips from getting released - because apparently he hates free festival publicity - amongst more horrid accusations that has seemed to stall Kesha's career indefinitely in lawsuits. And the parallel is important here: sure, both Kesha and Miley worked with Wayne Coyne, but Kesha always had a level of raw tightness and restraint and imagination in her compositions that balanced her ragged instincts against excess. Miley has never had that restraint, considering the massive overcompensation that has come with the burning of her child star image and her appropriation of whatever she can to flesh out an artistic identity.

So fast-forward to the annual craziness that was the VMAs, where Nicki Minaj buried the hatchet with Taylor and Kanye tried to filter through incoherent honesty... and through the entire show, trying to outshine everyone and prove she was still relevant, was Miley Cyrus. It cast her infamous 2013 performance into sharp relief - the shock might have worked twerking against Robin Thicke, but with no momentum, her attempts to throw herself into the drama of Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift or squeal raucously after Kanye's polemic, it reeked of desperation. And then she announced an album from out of nowhere and it made way too much sense - she needed something to boost the hype behind an album with no lead off single, no momentum, and the only shock value coming from the fact it was mainly produced by the Flaming Lips and had Phantogram and Ariel Pink on it! Not only that, it was over ninety minutes long over twenty-three tracks, all the more proof that there had been no restraint in its creation. In other words, I had zero expectations this would be good, but I knew it'd make for something interesting, so I dug into Miley Cyrus And Her Dead Petz - what madness did we find?

I'm of two minds when it comes to this album. On the one hand, it would be very easy for me to dismiss this record as a bloated, drug-addled catastrophe by a bored millionaire pop star who knows she could drop this for free and her hardcore fans would praise her as a genius - it's not like she needs to care about the radio, after all, she could go on tour with The Flaming Lips and make more millions anyway. And the big overhanging question remains that if Miley wasn't the Disney starlet-turned-amateur provocateur that she is and was just any anonymous artist, whether her fanbase would eat it up in the same way - let's be honest, they probably wouldn't. But at the same time, the fact this is coming from Miley does inject this record with some uniquely raw moments that glitter from within the mess that is this album, and I'm inclined to actually take this seriously, even if I get the suspicion that Miley might not. 

And I honestly am not even sure where to start with this overcooked mess of a record, so I guess the best place would be the production, which has credits from Wayne Coyne and the Flaming Lips to Mike Will Made It - lovely - to Miley herself. And it's an awkward fusion at best, with Mike Will Made It at least providing something of a leaden, heavy foundation with choppy, sharp-edged beats that could potentially have impact if the rest of the mix matched in tone or fidelity of the sound. This is where the first big problem that spans the entire record crops up: the instrumental textures and pickups don't fit together at all: right from the very first track 'Dooo It!' we have a trap-and-bass-heavy instrumental that's paired with the ugly multitracking on Miley's vocals, rubbery warping synths and a weedy organ line - and all of it clashes together with an ugliness that I know is intentional but doesn't make it any less hideous. And the jarring blend of sounds doesn't stop: the farting sounds all over the textureless guitars on 'The Floyd Song (Sunrise)', the tinny fragments and pitch-shifted punctuation on 'Space Boots', the super compressed, weedy guitars on 'Bang Me Box' that does nothing for an otherwise likeable groove and reminds me way too much of bad porn music, the gross, oily, incredibly sleazy bass on 'Milky Milky Milk' with that old woman's sample, the overcooked heaviness of 'Slab Of Butter (Scorpion)', and that's not even touching the interludes, of which the only one that is remotely listenable is the ethereal 'Miley Tibetan Bowlzzz'. The entire mix on the majority of this album has the sound of being half-melted in the sizzling California sun and reeking of cheap wine, really bad weed, and jizz, and the fact that nearly every single song runs long and lacks driving momentum makes it all the worse. That said, there are a few moments, mostly when the mix strips down a bit, that get listenable: I liked the strings on 'BB Talk', the wobbles that roil into the synth on 'Fweaky', the surprisingly well-balanced guitar lick anchoring the cascades of piano and acoustic texture on 'I Get So Scared', and the very Cyndi Lauper-inspired 'Lighter' with a deeply melodic mix and solid enough multi-tracking - even though it's hard to ignore Kesha drew influence from the exact same source three years ago with 'Past Lives' and it was a lot more coherent. Hell, I didn't even mind the stripped back piano ballads that came with 'Pablow The Blowfish' and 'Twinkle Song'.

And before we get to Miley herself, let's talk about the guest stars. Unsurprisingly, the vocal fragments that Sarah Barthel from Phantogram and Ariel Pink himself are completely wasted - which baffles me in the latter case because Pink has a far better head for the kind of music and themes Miley likes to approach than Wayne Coyne's general incoherence and lack of forward groove, so why he wasn't brought in behind the production board is a mystery. The biggest shock for me was Big Sean, whose half-asleep verse on 'Tangerine' is an astoundingly honest verse about his own mortality and existential emptiness that reminds me of when Childish Gambino showed up on Riff Raff's Neon Icon - a moment of crystal clear reality amidst a mess. 

But really, this is a record about Miley spreading her voice wherever she can - and to say the results are incredibly mixed would be way too kind. Frankly, when she isn't buried behind filters or gratuitous autotune and actually emotes, she's a powerful singer - the problem is that on a twenty-three track album, we maybe get four or five songs where that happens. Sure, I like more of her lower range on tracks like '1 Sun' where it sounds like she's doing a Lady Gaga impression, but the real stunner was the belting she did on 'Twinkle Song' or even the half-crying she did on 'The Floyd Song (Sunrise)' or 'Pablow The Blowfish' - you might not like her shrill, ear-bleeding tones and the sloppy multitracking makes Deradoorian's elegance all the more attractive, but there is raw charisma there when she tries. The problem is that for so much of this album, the stoned out haze means she's half-slurring or crooning her lines, and not only looks sloppy, but amateurish and juvenile.

And on that note, might as well go to the lyrics and themes. And folks, I tried. I listened through this hour-and-a-half album six or seven times trying to untangle the half-heard incoherence behind Miley's rambling trying to find the meaning of love amidst crippling loss - the title is not a joke, there are several songs about dead pets on this album and only one that evokes memories of Henry Gross' execrable song 'Shannon' from 1976. But you could also argue that 'petz' also refers to lovers, and through most of this album Miley's trying to untangle her own emotions in faux-hippie incoherence, with probably the best example being the mostly sweet 'BB Talk' where she eventually admits her feelings and just wants the guy to stop with juvenile baby talk, which I can support. But then we have 'Bang Me Box' which might be one of the least sexy songs about lesbianism hookups I've heard in years in terms of the writing and performance, or the environmentalist rant that is '1 Sun', or the smeared over 'sex jams' that are 'Milky Milky Milk' or 'Slab Of Butter (Scorpion)' that just make the sex sound sweaty, gross, and incredibly unattractive. Frankly when this album is at its best in terms of the writing are the more straightforward and sincere love and relationship songs like 'Fweaky' and 'I Get So Scared' and 'Lighter' that prove if Miley wanted to ground her material in real emotion, she could make some decent music. But here's where we get to the point that legitimately pisses me off about this album, because you get songs like 'Pavlow The Blowfish' which actually got me to give a shit about her emotional investment in the loss of a fish, or 'Twinkle Song', where she tries to interpret her dreams about what love means in a way that I could be incredibly uncharitable about and cut through the faux poetry about her bending good music over the table, but there was a rawness and passion that I got behind...

And then at the end of each song, she hits one staccato note on the table, swears in a perfectly normal voice, and the atmosphere is shattered. Yeah, can't get too vulnerable or real, can you Miley, you might actually make real art or something! And it's a complete slap in the face to anyone who actually thinks there's a modicum of depth or emotional honesty here and tries against all odds to give her the benefit of the doubt. Because this album is worse than reaching for transcendence and not saying much, like what happened with Deradoorian's last record, it actively pisses on the idea of having emotive sincerity altogether. And the most pathetic thing is that I don't even think Miley understands that's she's doing it, which highlights what this album is: a vanity project by a spoiled, ignorant pop starlet. This isn't avart-garde or genre-pushing, but a grotesquely indulgent catastrophe of a record where the moments of quality I'm convinced are here by accident, a badly mixed, sloppily performed, juvenile excuse for psychedelia that's a blemish on everyone's records. I want to give it points for at least having a few good moments, but to wade through all of the shit to get to it... yeah, I'm thinking a strong 3 out of 10 and no recommendation. Fans, at least Bangerz had a pop sensibility, this is just an outright insult. And Miley, I can't believe I'm the one who has to say this as a guy who used to be a fan, but here it is: grow up.

1 comment:

  1. "she hits one staccato note on the table." I don't know how one hits notes on a table... are you sure you didn't mean piano?