Endless Summer Vacation shows Miley Cyrus’ versatility, but it’s a step back
Miley Cyrus has done it all.
She’s been Hannah Montana, a tongue-wagging twerkster, Ashley O in “Black Mirror” and, thanks to her stellar covers of “Jolene” and “Heart of Glass,” the last person you ever want to face off against in a karaoke contest.
On her eighth studio album, “Endless Summer Vacation” (out Friday), Cyrus packs it all into one, showcasing the versatility that has kept her on the music charts for nearly two decades.
But in bouncing from one genre to the next, she risks losing the cohesion that is key to a fillerless record like her superb 2020 release, “Plastic Hearts,” making “Endless Summer Vacation” feel like a step back.
One minute Cyrus is harmonizing with Brandi Carlile on “Thousand Miles,” an acoustic midtempo that harks back to her Disney Channel days, and the next she’s talk-singing over the experimental beats of “Handstand,” which taps into the weirdness of her critically panned 2015 album, “Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz.”
Cyrus, 30, has never been one to play by the rules, though. She admits as much on “Wildcard,” singing that while she “could stay and not break your heart,” she won’t make any promises.
Much of “Endless Summer Vacation” is inspired by the ups and downs of love.
The psychedelic groove “Rose Colored Lenses” stunningly romanticizes the honeymoon phase of a relationship, and “You” (which features rich vocals but is poorly mixed compared to the previously released live version) finds Cyrus searching for “that late-night sweet magic, that forever-lasting love.”
The Grammy nominee — who was previously married to Liam Hemsworth and is currently dating fellow musician Maxx Morando — admittedly hits some bumps on the road to companionship, though.
On the biting, “Bangerz”-stype trap song “Muddy Feet,” she catches a partner cheating as she snarls, “Get the f–k out of my house with that s–t / Get the f–k out of my life with that s–t.”
The rock ballad “Jaded,” meanwhile, calls out an ex who is “not even willing” to admit their mistakes, instead heading “down to the bar ’til [they’re] blurry.” It’s the true gem of the album, showcasing Cyrus’ vocal prowess as she sings, “We went to hell, but we never came back.”
In the end, Cyrus wastes no time dusting off her hands and moving on — with herself.
The LP’s lead single, “Flowers” mourns the “kind of dream that can’t be sold” before she learns the importance of self-love: “I can take myself dancing / And I can hold my own hand / Yeah, I can love me better than you can,” she belts during the chorus of what has deservedly become her biggest hit since 2013’s “Wrecking Ball.”
And the aptly titled and irresistibly catchy tropical number “Island” is all about the perspective that follows a breakup, with a newly single Cyrus dipping her toes in the sand and pondering, “Am I stranded on an island or have I landed in paradise?”
But even she knows solitude isn’t always the solution. On the album’s stripped-back, piano-driven closer, “Wonder Woman,” Cyrus warbles, “When her favorite record’s on and she’s dancing in the dark / She can’t stop her eyes from welling up.”
The tearjerker’s third-person narrative is intriguing. Has Cyrus, the seemingly fearless artist who’s become the voice of a generation, been putting on a brave face this whole time?
Who knows? Maybe she’s just being Miley after all.
Miley Cyrus: Endless Summer Vacation review – gossip, grit and glorious pop
After years trying to reconcile chart success with her leftfield musical instincts, the singer has delivered a hazily atmospheric album that plays to her provocative strengths
It says something about the degree of anticipation around Miley Cyrus’s eighth studio album that it was leaked, turning up on illegal download sites a good 24 hours before its official release. It’s a phenomenon that feels faintly old-fashioned. You might have thought the whole business of leaking albums belonged to a past era, before streaming supplanted downloads, and that people are now largely happy to adhere to the schedule knowing they’ll be able to stream the album for free when it arrives.
But apparently there are exceptions. Such is the power of a hit like Endless Summer Vacation’s lead single, Flowers. It’s hit No 1 everywhere from Poland to Paraguay, seven weeks and counting at the top of the British charts, its lyrics and video painstakingly scanned by a media and fanbase eager to discover references to Cyrus’s ex-husband Liam Hemsworth, three years after their divorce.
Or perhaps people are just eager to see what Miley Cyrus does next. Ever since she broke loose from her early persona as a squeaky-clean Disney star, her career seems to have been governed by two competing impulses. The first is to be a 21st-century pop star, making the kind of committee-written electronic hits that 21st-century pop stars tend to make, as was the case with her 2013 album Bangerz. The other is to be a more traditional or even leftfield artist, making records that highlight the Stevie Nicks-ish qualities of her voice: the Miley Cyrus who roared her way through a lockdown cover of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, who followed up Bangerz with the Flaming Lips collaboration Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz, then followed that up with 2017’s country-rock flavoured Younger Now.
The public seems to have decided which Cyrus they prefer – trailed by a duet with Dua Lipa and the disco-flavoured Midnight Sky, her last album Plastic Hearts did substantially better than its two predecessors – but if Cyrus was that bothered about public opinion, she would never have shaken off her Disney shackles in quite such uncompromising style.
In fact, Flowers suggests Cyrus might have managed to entwine her competing impulses more successfully than on Plastic Hearts, where vaguely antiseptic “rock” tracks and guest appearances from Joan Jett and Billy Idol sat a little uncomfortably alongside floaty synth-pop and big arms-aloft ballads. It is, after all, a song that does a lot of very 21st-century pop things: it references Bruno Mars’ 2013 single When I Was Your Man and knowingly nods to an august classic, Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive. It also deploys the fashionable device of scattering in a trail of clues about its real-life subject. But with its shimmering electric guitar and understated yacht-rock mood, it sounds like it might have been recorded in a studio adjacent to the one where Fleetwood Mac put the finishing touches on Rumours (a sense underlined by the demo version that closes Endless Summer Vacation, featuring Cyrus singing accompanied only by soft electric piano).
Flowers sets the tone for a considerable chunk of the album, which deals in well-written pop songs dressed up in arrangements that – with their acoustic guitars, rhythm tracks apparently recorded live, pianos and soft washes of synthesizer – nod in the direction of mid-70s LA without seeming wilfully retro. The Brandi Carlile duet Thousand Miles is probably the finest example of this, but it’s all high-quality, melodically robust and hooky, the softness of the arrangements pointing up the gritty huskiness in Cyrus’ vocals.
Whether you think the whole business of seeding songs with clues about real-life intrigue is a tiresome and cynical exploitation of prurient public curiosity, a pragmatic response to the constant surveillance of celebrities’ lives or just confessional songwriting retooled for the age of social media speculation is up to you. But Flowers has proven it’s a well-worn trick that still works, and there’s more of it here. You can virtually hear the click-clacking of gossip-blog posts being typed in the background of Jaded – in which Cyrus lets an ex have it with both barrels – and Rose Colored Lenses’s languid depiction of post-coital bliss.
Essentially divided along old-fashioned side one/side two lines, the album’s second half shifts the instrumentation towards electronics while skilfully maintaining the hazy mood. Even when River deploys a dancefloor pulse and a Roland 303 acid line, the transition doesn’t feel jolting. It throws in some relative weirdness on Handstand, which melds soft ambient synths with a spoken-word monologue – “glowing creatures beamed down from great heights, electric eels in red venom” – and a chorus that trumpets Cyrus’ sexual prowess. In the WTF? stakes it’s nothing to match Dead Petz’s Fucking Fucked Up or Miley Tibetan Bowlzzz, but still substantially odder than anything you could imagine her peers sticking on a hotly anticipated new album.
It loses a little steam towards the end. Island tries to conjure a laid-back mood but just sounds bland – you could imagine the Goombay Dance Band singing its chorus – and Wildcard feels too boilerplate, one of those weird pop songs that keeps insisting on its author’s untameable individuality while sounding almost wilfully homogenised.
But Endless Summer Vacation doesn’t often feel like a pop star going through the motions or ticking boxes. Nor does it feel as forced as Plastic Hearts’ attempt to meld Cyrus’s divergent interests into a coherent album. There’s a naturalness and a flow in evidence, and charm, too. You can’t imagine anyone who rushed to the download sites was disappointed with what they found.
Miley Cyrus – ‘Endless Summer Vacation’ review: a potent reclamation of power
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.
Miley Cyrus – Endless Summer Vacation album review: restlessly roams between musical genres
The strength of Cyrus is suiting her mighty voice to so many styles
Judging by the preamble, the eighth Miley Cyrus album is guaranteed to be a huge hit. Its lead single, Flowers, has been a phenomenon, breaking the record for the most first-week Spotify streams, staying at number one in the US for six weeks and about to secure its eighth week at the top over here.
Latecomers, or anyone who doesn’t do TikTok, might struggle to fathom why there’s been quite so much fuss about the song. It’s an easygoing, old fashioned groove that trundles along without any showstopping moments. When the strings arrive it’s easy to hear its close connection to Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive. But its message of resilience has major appeal to the kind of wellbeing influencers who preach self care, plus the fact that it was released on her ex-husband’s birthday permits an intoxicating feeling of being let in on the break-up goss.
In any case, no one can predict what the hyperactive social media platform will latch on to next. Thanks to TikTok users, the single that displaced Cyrus from number one in America is one by The Weeknd that’s almost seven years old. The rest of Endless Summer Vacation should still appeal, though, thanks to a restless roaming between musical genres that means it’s impossible to feel bored.
Cyrus has made an attempt at coherence by dividing the album into ‘AM’ and ’PM’ sections. Unusually, that means the slow ones come first, including the twinkling melody of Jaded, a break-up song where her rocky rasp lets rip on a grandiose chorus. The daughter of Billy Ray and goddaughter of Dolly Parton stays in touch with her country roots on Thousand Miles, a classy duet with Brandi Carlile, and lets that lived-in voice do some more heavy lifting on the piano-led torch song You.
After that comes a woozy wash of synths and some spoken word: “We met each other on the neon dinghy,” says Cyrus gnomically as the electronics become increasingly frantic. It’s a weird one, followed by the thundering acid pop of River. On Violet Chemistry she’s the last one in the club, with a lost phone and no more cigarettes: “When the floor is wet and the lights come on but you don’t wanna leave.”
Things come back around with another one about female strength, Wonder Woman, at the close. The strength of Cyrus is suiting her mighty voice to so many styles, on an album where even those with the shortest attention spans should find a new favourite.