Sunday, November 26, 2017

album review: 'younger now' by miley cyrus

You know, on some level... didn't we all see this coming?

Okay, maybe not everybody, but when I saw people genuinely surprised that Miley Cyrus was returning to country music - note the word 'return', that's going to be important here - I just had to sigh and shake my head. Right from the very beginning Miley has always played as the L.A. outsider from Nashville - hell, it's the entire premise behind 'Party In The USA' - and with her thicker accent and twang inherited from her country singer father Billy Ray Cyrus, there was a part of me that deep down knew a country pivot was coming.

Granted, if you consider her career over the past decade I can see why some might not have expected it, from electro-pop at the beginning of the club boom to the awkward trap sounds of 2013, a year where her fame was at its unsteady peak, all the way to the nightmarish mess of psychedelia that plagued her disaster of a 2015 record Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz. Because there were some consistent throughlines - reckless provocation without much weighty content to back it up, production that tried and mostly failed to support her, and in her trap-leaning years an approach to hip-hop that all kinds of tasteless and raised some ugly questions about white pop stars pilfering black culture. And now that she got all the partying out of her system, she can leave that job for Post Malone and go back home to a nice, safe, whitebread sound. And as such, I had very little interest in this: if I wanted a pop star dabbling in country I'd stick with Kesha, who at least seemed to care about her art and who I could easily see fitting with those experimenting in the genre, whereas a disheartened Miley after the election last year was claiming she could reach out to a conservative demographic with this new image and genre shift. Now there are all sorts of problems with the assertion without even getting into the optics, but all of it would be irrelevant if we didn't talk about the music, so what did I find on Younger Now?

Honestly, I wish I disliked this more - at least that would have the potential to make this sort of review interesting. Because I've gone through Younger Now entirely too many times and my overall response after every listen remains the same: 'well, that existed'. I can't even get angry about lost potential or an artistic betrayal of ideals, because she's already shown us how far she can fly off the rails, and when it comes to depth of ideas, I'm not sure there was ever enough for Miley to betray. 

But again, the conversation needs to focus on the music, and let's get this out of the way fast: this is barely a country record. Yes, Dolly Parton is here for 'Rainbowland' because I think she's way too nice to say no, and yeah, you do get some fiddle and pedal steel on the final two songs that come close to the right tones, but this is much closer to a retro-leaning pop record, especially in much of the composition - and to her credit, Miley does sound better over this production than most, it flatters her thicker accent and it's clear she's comfortable with it. Is she ever going to bring the firepower and intensity of her best songs in the past? Well, 'Bad Mood' and 'Love Someone' get close, but really, the mixing has way too much poorly placed, Lana Del Rey-esque reverb on the vocals to flatter that raw intensity, and that means we have to talk about the production. Unlike pretty much everything she's ever done before, Miley is only working with a single other producer this time, Orel Yoel - and when you start hearing some of the slapdash mistakes in the mixing and recording, you can tell inexperience is coming through from the both of them. Yoel has worked with Miley before on songs that were never all that good, but his biggest other credit is Asher Roth's Asleep In The Bread Aisle, and there's a part of me that just feels like they're over their heads. I'll admit to have warmed on 'Malibu' a bit - it easily has the most distinct hook on the record - but the sloppiness of the guitar loops, especially against percussion that rarely synchronizes with the basslines, always pulls me out of the song. In fact, I'd say the drums and percussion are a consistent problem with this record - awkwardly placed in the mix, entirely too stiff, and for as liquid as the grooves are trying to be, that's a real handicap. Now I was willing to forgive some of this: it's clear the guitars are going for a misty, sort of ramshackle vintage country tone - or for just modern folk like on 'Bad Mood' - as are most of the vocals, but some of them are not, along with the majority of the percussion, leaving a sound that is less the burnished organic vibe from Dave Cobb and more in the vein of Meghan Trainor updating doo-wop for the modern pop era. 

Now that's not saying there aren't some agreeable tunes here - after all, 'Malibu' did grow on me, and for what they are 'Bad Mood' and 'Inspired' are decent enough as well. But now we have to get to the content and where we need to admit that for as much credit as I've given her, she's never been deep. And that's not normally a problem, especially in Miley's brand of pop - it can be flighty, but there's a place for that sort of vibe and energy... and yet when you get to the writing this record doesn't come close to sticking the landing. For one, the lack of distinctive details and the abundance of obvious lyrical cliches make the writing feel very thin and lacking in character - which could have had a shot at working if the overall tone kept any of Miley's sunny energy or charisma instead of drowning her in reverb! But I also get the feeling she expects this to be taken seriously, or that she thinks there's real depth here - and yet let's not mince words, this album is vapid as hell. The relationship details are flimsy and Miley shows herself as shockingly lacking in confidence or impetus to act on songs like 'Week Without You' or 'Thinkin' or 'Love Someone', where she knew since the very beginning he was not the one - so I'll ask the same question I asked Taylor Swift five years ago with 'I Knew You Were Trouble', why did you even start it? But what's exasperating is that Miley is delivering and writing these songs with the conviction that they mean so much more than they do, and it makes how hard they fall short all the more striking: I like the tones behind 'Inspired', but when she says is like a modern update of 'The Climb' I believe it, because it's easily just as empty and cliched - not a good sign if this was the track intended for the Clinton campaign in 2016! And on that topic, for as much as 'Bad Mood' references breaking glass ceilings, the song is so maddeningly unspecific there's no focal point for any real outcry. And while 'She's Not Him' is trying to normalize bisexuality in this breakup, the sloppy pronoun usage and wonky framing that still has her wind up in a safe and straight situation, framed more as a flirtation than anything deeper or real.

And then you remember that Miley was intending for this to appeal to a more conservative crowd, and this record starts making a lot more sense, where you get a song like 'Rainbowland' which has all the hallmarks of 60s-hippie country but none of the ideals behind it - because she's a comfortable position where she doesn't need to stand for them. Of course she's going for unthreatening, retro-leaning pop that places her in a more demure, traditional gender role, because that's the sort of music that won't challenge the audience she's trying to court, either through her choices or her incompetence. And she plainly stated that was her goal with Younger Now, so in a twisted way she succeeded... but it's not a goal I can respect from a standpoint of artistic progression and it does feel like she's going backwards. And yet whenever Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz got close to a real revelation or moment of real potency, it backpedaled too - never got too real, we probably should have seen this coming! 'Younger Now' might be more listenable, but artistically it's the sort of bland pablum that utterly squanders whatever potential she might have in favour of pandering to an audience that will not empower her - and given her highly publicized antics, probably won't even care! But hey, if you're a part of the demographic that wants to hear more safe music in the vein of Meghan Trainor's debut in ideology if not sound, I can see you liking this. Otherwise, this is a light 5/10, no recommendation, and Kesha's Rainbow did these sorts of songs far better this year - skip this.

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