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On ‘Younger Now,’ Miley is older but not any wiser

| Tuesday, October 3, 2017

younger now webSusan Zhu

When I try to make sense of Miley Cyrus’ evolution as an artist, I can’t help but think about something she said in a 2013 Rolling Stone profile. Just days after inciting a nationwide moral panic with her VMAs performance — you know the one, with the tongue wagging, foam finger licking and, yes, twerking — she expressed her distaste of being put in a box. “Now people expect me to come out and twerk with my tongue out all the time,” Cyrus said. “I’ll probably never do that s— again.”

That impulsive streak is what has made Cyrus such a compelling, if often frustrating, pop star. On her new album “Younger Now,” she reinvents her sound and image once again, returning to her country roots. In many ways, this new direction was inevitable, given her lineage: her father is Billy Ray Cyrus, of “Achy Breaky Heart” infamy, and her godmother is Dolly Parton. Cyrus herself frames this as the next step in her continual process of reinvention. “Nothing stays the same,” she sings on the title track. “Change is a thing you can count on.”

This sudden about-face, however, is especially fraught given how liberally Cyrus borrowed from rap and R&B during the “Bangerz” era. In a conversation about cultural exchange last year, music critic Craig Jenkins wrote that acceptable cultural exchange “looks like collaboration, not costume, like advocacy, not avoidance.” Now that Cyrus has said goodbye to all that, her engagement with black music genres — and her dismissal of any criticism regarding said appropriation — feels, more than ever, like avoidance.

Cyrus’ previous effort, 2015’s “Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz,” was her White Album, a 23-track sprawling experimental mess. “Younger Now,” in contrast, is surprisingly tame in its country-leaning soft-rock. As it is, the album sounds completely divorced from any recent trends in country music. Cyrus does not attempt to blur the lines between rap and country, as Sam Hunt does on “Body Like a Back Road,” the year’s biggest country hit, which owes as much to Nelly as it does Hank Williams. Neither does she pursue outlaw country, which would seem to be a natural fit for her and has been revived by Chris Stapleton or Sturgill Simpson in recent years.

Instead, Cyrus — who wrote and produced the entire album with her collaborator Oren Yoel — has put out an album of middle-of-the-road soft-rock, accented by twangy guitar licks. Cyrus’ voice is well-suited to the genre, putting her raspy Nashville drawl to better use than anything on “Dead Petz,” where her voice was drowned in reverb.

Pop music is much more forgiving of bad songwriting; interesting production and performance choices can often make up for insipid lyrics. Country music, however, more readily exposes these faults, and the lethargic ballads on “Younger Now” suffer in this regard. For someone who once boasted of being a “Southern belle, crazier than hell,” Cyrus sounds surprisingly conventional, singing about love and loss in well-worn cliches.

The best tracks on “Younger Now” are those that channel the verve of Cyrus’ earlier work. On “Malibu,” a breezy love song, she imagines a utopia by the sea. The track builds to a dizzying crescendo, which underscores the euphoria of reuniting with an old flame. Likewise, “Thinkin,’” on which she bemoans spending so much time fretting over a guy who won’t call her back, recalls the bluesy swagger of Sheryl Crow.

None of Cyrus’ forays into country music on this album are as successful as her cover of Parton’s “Jolene,” from the 2012 Backyard Sessions. “Jolene” is, of course, a masterwork, with Parton’s incisive lyrics capturing the desperation of her scorned narrator. Cyrus could learn a thing or two about songwriting from her godmother — on “Younger Now,” she is older, but not necessarily any wiser.

Artist: Miley Cyrus

Album: “Younger Now”

Label: RCA

If you like: Sheryl Crow, Dolly Parton, Mumford & Sons

Tracks: “Malibu,” “Thinkin’”

2/5 shamrocks

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About Matthew Munhall

Matthew thinks everyone should listen to Charly Bliss.

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