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Miley takes a stylistic left turn with ‘Dead Petz’

| Wednesday, September 2, 2015

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When Miley Cyrus set to work on distancing herself from Hannah Montana two years ago, she rebranded herself as America’s foremost provocateur. It’s the reason MTV asked her to host this year’s VMAs: she has become a walking FCC complaint, intent on courting controversy by any means possible.

This is, in part, what makes her such a thrilling pop star, but also such a frustrating one. For every progressive comment she makes about gender and sexuality, she reveals her ignorance about race — like when she accused Nicki Minaj of being angry and jealous for speaking about racism in the music industry.

For better or worse, this sense of unpredictability extended to “Bangerz,” Cyrus’ first post-Disney album. “Bangerz” felt like a pop album made for the Internet, on which the lines between genres eroded: country-rap, synthpop, dubstep, pop balladry and R&B all existed alongside each other, guided by Cyrus’ insistence on doing whatever the hell she wants.

That ethos infects “Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz,” a surprise album which was released for free on SoundCloud on Sunday night. Arriving two years after “Bangerz,” it’s a stylistic left turn that is perhaps the most experimental album from a major pop star in recent memory.

In a New York Times interview earlier this week, Cyrus explained that her advisers “said they’d never seen someone at my level, especially a woman, have this much freedom. I literally can do whatever I want.” That Cyrus is allowed to exercise complete creative control at such a young age is admirable, although it’s an idea that often sounds better in theory than execution.

Her two major collaborators on “Dead Petz” are the psychedelic rock band The Flaming Lips and rap producer Mike Will Made It, who was responsible for most of “Bangerz.” The result is an sonically adventurous record that offers an ethereal, lo-fi take on pop music. It also has about as much subtlety of a pair of weed print socks; its first line is “Yeah, I smoke pot!” and Cyrus never lets you forget that she really, really loves weed.

“BB Talk” perhaps best embodies the line between genuinely interesting and ridiculously indulgent experimentation that Cyrus walks on this album. Its verses are rambling, cringeworthy spoken-word bits about emoji use and the smell of her boyfriend’s armpit, but the chorus puts her natural pop instincts and strong voice to good use.

Many of the tracks sound like Cyrus fronting The Flaming Lips circa “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” due to the involvement of the band itself. The spacey ballad “Karen Don’t Be Sad” sounds like a modern update of “Dear Prudence,” with Cyrus putting her rule-breaking ethos toward comforting a friend. “They’re just a bunch of fools / And you can make them powerless / Don’t let them make the rules,” she sings, in one of the best displays of her husky Southern croon, which is drowned in heavy layers of reverb elsewhere on the album.

There is a lot on “Dead Petz” that tries too hard to be weird, like “Miley Tibetan Bowlzzz,” which is just two minutes of singing bowl tones, and “F****n F*****d Up,” an interlude on which Cyrus merely repeats the titular phrase ad nauseam. Yet, the album also features many patches of pop brilliance, especially her tracks with Mike Will, which bridge the gap between Cyrus’ newfound interest in psychedelia and the rap influence of “Bangerz.” “I Forgive Yiew” plays like trap music on acid, anchored by Cyrus’ swaggering delivery, while the mellow 80s pop of “Lighter,” on which she compares a relationship to getting high, is genuinely affecting despite its conceit.

“Dead Petz” is a sprawling, exhausting mess of an album, its 23 tracks running nearly 92 minutes long and its lyrics often delving into trippy cliches and stoner philosophy. It is an album that, just like Cyrus herself, is flawed and uncensored, but nonetheless manages to be compelling due its unpredictability.

3/5 stars

Tracks: “BB Talk,” “I Forgive Yiew,” “Lighter”

If you like: The Flaming Lips, Ariel Pink

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About Matthew Munhall

Matthew thinks everyone should listen to Charly Bliss.

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