On ‘Plastic Hearts,’ Miley Cyrus Spins the Complexities of Life Into an ’80s Rock Love Letter 

In a year of transformation for everyone, it seems fitting that Miley Cyrus ascends to her newest form. Creating her modern day version of ‘80s rock, pop and punk stylings, she channels the likes of Stevie Nicks and Joan Jett for the bulk her latest album “Plastic Hearts.” The fact that Cyrus recently did a duet with Nicks for “Edge of Midnight,” a remix of her album’s first single “Midnight Sky,” which was a mash-up of Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen,” feels like Cyrus is bringing her rock dreams to fruition. Cyrus has been cultivating a millennial version of the Fleetwood Mac singer and ‘80s icon’s honeyed, hard-living vocal style since before she invited fans to “Meet Miley Cyrus” in 2007. But after cycling through more than a decade of different musical styles and enough personal controversies to give Nicks a run for her own tabloid-worthy history, Cyrus seems almost urgently eager to demonstrate how at ease she is with this latest version of herself across a collection of songs that give a contemporary pop polish to the style and sentiment of her rock predecessors.

It’s not surprising for “Plastic Hearts” to replace the second and third parts of the trilogy of EPs she began in May 2019 with “She Is Coming;” as intriguing as that collection of songs was — especially in the months preceding her split from longtime off-and-on boyfriend and short time husband Liam Hemsworth — its hedonistic vibe felt slightly forced in comparison to “Slide Away,” the straightforwardly vulnerable single she released as a sort of soundtrack to the announcement of that news. The new album evidences a growth even from that turbulent moment in her very public life where her opinions about the world, and responses to her critics, seem mostly like a reminder that she’s already thought everything they have, or will, about her, so either get on board or get behind her. The punky “WTF Do I Know” opens the album with the lyrics, “Probably not gon’ wanna play me on your station,” but damn if every one of these songs doesn’t sound ready to stake its claim on one chart or another as she shuffles easily between empowering pop anthems, introspective ballads and straightforward rock.

To be fair, as a celebrity Cyrus likes to have her cake and eat it too: for somebody who likes to observe how fascinated the media is about her ups and downs, she sure acts a lot of them out in public. That isn’t a bad thing (well, maybe for her it is), but when she talks about “livin’ at the Chateau” on the title track, it’s tough to be too sympathetic since she definitely could choose not to set up a home base at one of L.A.’s most notorious magnets for superstar misbehavior. But as much as that’s become part of her repertoire — a new week, a new scandal — “Plastic Hearts” adds up to much more than just another catalogue of her latest exploits. “Angels Like You” is a heartbreaking autopsy of a romance that should never have started, but she’s now reluctant to let go, so why not dish out a little more pain to one another before it ends? This becomes a place where she’s exceedingly comfortable as a songwriter, exposing the contradictions between end-of-the-world love and daily incompatibility, creating music made about breakups but meant to be about breakthroughs and vice versa.

If you haven’t heard anything new from Billy Idol in a while, he makes a welcome return to form on the propulsive dance track “Night Crawling,” where he and Miley trade verses about “Cravin’ attention / Under the disco ball.” You can practically hear the whiskey swirling in her mouth on the album’s first single “Midnight Sky,” conveying a confidence she’s trying to convince herself of most of all, as she sings, “I was born to run, I don’t belong to anyone, oh no / I don’t need to be loved by you.” But as her contemporaries assemble the tracks for their albums with a calculating precision, hoping to score first with a dance floor banger, then a ballad, then a party anthem, and so on, what’s most interesting — and successful— about Cyrus’ latest is how natural this collection sounds together, the many moods of Miley as she reveals what’s on her mind, whether she’s feeling defiant or forlorn, resentful or regretful. 

For example, on the wistful follow-up to “Midnight Sky,” “High,” co-producer Mark Ronson gives her a bit of the country twang from her “Younger Now” sessions while she juggles conflicted feelings, singing “in my head, I did my very best saying goodbye, goodbye / And I don’t miss you but I think of you and don’t know why.” She then immediately turns around with “Hate Me,” offering a heartbreaking workout of morbidity — reportedly inspired by a near-death experience during a flight to a music festival — about the conflicting feelings her absence might inspire: “I wonder what would happen if I die / I hope all of my friends get drunk and high / Would it be too hard to say goodbye? / I hope that it’s enough to make you cry.” And immediately after, she admits unapologetically to cheating on “Bad Karma,” singing “I don’t play the nicest but it ain’t a fucking crime / I never learn my lesson so I always do it twice” as Joan Jett gives her an extra kick of punk rock swagger. There’s a sexy tension in the various moods and modes of her confessions, as she leads a search party into the darkest and most dangerous corners of her feelings, and it makes you excited (and even a little scared) to follow.

Cyrus does herself a bit of a disservice by including two recent covers that both expose the limitations of her voice and just conjure these other iconic belters too vividly; Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” requires a register, and a precision, that Miley’s sultry drawl can’t reach, while the Cranberries’ “Zombie” is simply too iconic a performance from the late Dolores O’Riordan for Miley’s not to sound like skilled karaoke. But in places where Cyrus’ confessions of a rock star lifestyle have felt forced in the past, a theatrical overstatement playing to an audience she expects to mine through her lyrical confessions for secret truths, “Plastic Hearts” finally feels like her oversized personality and lifestyle and her sometimes idiosyncratic musical explorations have finally gotten on the same page. Moreover, she seems finally to have found her place in an industry she knows is eager to chew her up and spit her out, and she is ready to spit right back in its eye, making a generational leap from Nicks’ “Gold Dust Woman” to her own “Golden G String,” singing, “The old boys hold all the cards and they ain’t playing gin / And you dare to call me crazy, have you looked around this place? / I should walk away… But I think I’ll stay.” There was a time when her place in pop culture’s firmament was less certain, but records like this one make you glad she’s here to stay, as she more astutely than ever recognizes the flaws and contradictions that made her who she is — and the world refuses to stop pointing out — but defiantly refuses to let them hold her back, and encourages us to do the same. 

Plastic Hearts” releases Nov. 27 on Apple Music.