Miley Cyrus‘ eighth studio album arrives on a cloud of mystery, which is unusual for an artist who isn’t exactly the shy and retiring type. Cyrus is a straight-talker who is normally game for a laugh on the promo circuit, but since co-hosting a televised New Year’s Eve special with her godmother Dolly Parton, she has kept a curiously low profile and even stayed quiet on social media. Until its week of release, all we really knew about ‘Endless Summer Vacation’ is what Cyrus tells us on the chart-conquering ‘Flowers’, its inescapable and fundamentally self-possessed lead single: “I can love me better than you can.”
If ‘Flowers’ finds Cyrus rebuilding herself after a break-up – “We were right ’til we weren’t / Built a home and watched it burn” – then the album feels like a messier, more complex extension of this process. On the dreamy ‘Rose Colored Lenses’, she looks back at the best days of a relationship when “somehow the bed sheets are dirty like sticky sweet lemonade”. But the fierce ‘Muddy Feet’, which features Sia on backing vocals and sounds a little like Lana Del Rey jamming with Kings of Leon circa-2016, finds Cyrus wronged and fighting back: “And you smell like perfume that I didn’t purchase / Now I know why you’ve been closing the curtains / Get the fuck out of my house!” Cyrus’ ire is completely riveting.
‘You’, a bar room ballad that seems to be about a rebound relationship, could even be read as a rejection of heteronormative expectations. “I am not made for no horsey and carriage,” sings Cyrus, a queer, pansexual woman who was married to actor Liam Hemsworth from 2018 to 2020. Later, on the brilliant, ’80s-influenced synth-pop track ‘Violet Chemistry’, Cyrus hints that she may not be entirely LTR-oriented right now. “There’s something between us that’s too major to ignore,” she sings in a crisp staccato. “May not be eternal but nocturnal, nothin’ more.”
Musically, ‘Endless Summer Vacation’ is one of Cyrus’ more subdued efforts, but it is also peppered with surprises that recall her brasher previous eras. ‘Rose Colored Lenses’, one of six songs Cyrus co-wrote with Harry Styles‘ producers Kid Harpoon and Tyler Johnson, climaxes in a psychedelic swirl that sounds like something from ‘Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz’, the experimental 2015 album she made with The Flaming Lips. The infectious second single ‘River’, which Cyrus has described as “dancefloor banger” with “nasty” lyrics, feels like a relative of her Stevie Nicks-inspired hit ‘Midnight Sky’. And, in a way, ‘Violet Chemistry’ is a cooler, more alt-leaning update of the bolshy electro-pop sound that Cyrus mined on her underrated 2010 album ‘Can’t Be Tamed’.
Cyrus has called ‘Endless Summer Vacation’ her “love letter” to LA, the city she moved to as a teenager when she landed her career-launching role in the Disney Channel series Hannah Montana. She has also said the album is divided into parts: an ‘AM’ opening portion “representing the morning time, where there’s a buzz and an energy and… a potential of new possibilities”, followed by a ‘PM’ closing section with a “slinky seediness and kind of a grime but a glamour at the same time”. The split isn’t super-pronounced, but with the exception of ‘Flowers’, the album’s second half contains its most obvious hits. Cyrus is a seasoned genre-hopper, but the lovely, reggae-flecked ‘Island’ feels like something brand new for Cyrus.
Generally, the opening stretch finds Cyrus in more familiar musical territory. ‘Thousand Miles’ is a country-dappled collaboration with Brandi Carlile; ‘You’ allows her to show off her powerful throaty vocals, and ‘Jaded’ contains echoes of ’90s alt-rock anthems like The Cranberries‘ ‘Zombie’, a song that Cyrus has covered in the past. The album’s major curveball comes right in the middle: ‘Handstand’, a psychedelic fever dream co-written, somewhat randomly, by transgressive American film director Harmony Korine. The song’s trippy production and cryptic lyrics – “It’s like you saw an unicorn, you don’t understand / How I’m doing what I’m doing in a fucking handstand” – feel like another nod to ‘Dead Petz’ era.
It all adds up to an album that holds your full attention even if it isn’t Cyrus’s boldest or most visionary. ‘Endless Summer Vacation’ certainly feels like an accurate reflection of who she is as an artist – and a person – in 2023. She’s still working out what she wants from a relationship. She knows she can pull off different musical styles even when she’s not trying to make bangers (or ‘Bangerz’). And when she sings “But don’t forget, baby I’m a wildcard” on the third-to-last song, you’ll definitely believe her.
- Release date: March 10, 2023
- Record label: Columbia Records