Back in 2008, I made a prediction that I didn’t write down but desperately wish I did (so you just have to take this assertion on faith): After listening to Miley Cyrus’ Breakout, her first album of music independent of her work on the Disney series Hannah Montana, I heard enough restlessness in her voice and latent invention in her songs to assume that Cyrus would end up pulling “a reverse Liz Phair,” in that she would start with the glossy pop stuff and end up producing something as intense and naked as Exile in Guyville by the time she got to album number five. (Phair, on the other hand, debuted in 1993 with a series of remarkably raw tunes and then gradually embraced big-ticket arena pop, eventually cresting with the smash single “Why Can’t I” in 2003.)
We have arrived at the fifth album for Cyrus, and while it doesn’t possess the raw-nerve minimalism of “Never Said” or “F— And Run,” Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz is certainly Cyrus at her weirdest and most direct. It’s also a bracing, adventurous album that pushes the outer edges of her pop sensibility without ever losing sight of her radio-readiness. The album, which is streaming for free via Soundcloud and whose existence was announced at the end of Cyrus’ hosting stint at the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday, was primarily constructed alongside Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne, who has become a pal and something of a spiritual advisor to Cyrus. (She appeared on the band’s album-length Beatles tribute With a Little Help From My Fwends, providing vocals on loopy versions of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”and “A Day in the Life”).
Coyne’s influence is greatest on the album’s first half, which features a healthy dose of the Lips’ warm guitars and uniquely unsettling approach to melody—the opening one-two punch of the fuzzy monolith “Dooo It!” and the hazy ballad “Karen Don’t Be Sad” capture both poles of the Lips’ trippy attack, complete with bracing rhythmic inventions care of longtime band member and multi-instrumental whiz Steven Drozd. (In fact, “Karen Don’t Be Sad” sounds like a lost track from Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots.)
But Dead Petz isn’t just Miley Cyrus fronting the Flaming Lips. The back half of the album album also features a handful of tracks produced by “We Can’t Stop” mastermind Mike Will Made It, and Coyne’s organic approach gels surprisingly well with Will’s throbbing computer pop. The humming “Lighter” twists a lite-FM groove into a hypnotic meditation on hope, and the off-kilter harmonies and schoolyard-chant nature of “I Forgive Yiew”—a coda of sorts to “Slab of Butter,” featuring Phantogram’s Sarah Barthel—rescues a killer song from the grips of the lyric, “You’re lucky I’m doing my yoga or you might be dead.”
At 92 minutes, Dead Petz could have used some judicious editing and the drug and sex references in many of the songs occasionally sound like Cryus is trying too hard to prove she can hang. (Her constant reminders that she’s a pot smoker have stopped sounding rebellious and now come across as strident—which, I suppose, is definitive proof that she is a pot smoker). But otherwise, Dead Petz is a remarkable accomplishment because Cyrus appears to have grasped all of her potential at once: there are Hot 100-ready sugar bombs, psychedelic departures, rugged rock, and throbbing alt-pop that immediately makes the year’s other best pop record (Carly Rae Jepsen’s excellent EMOTION) sound alarmingly obsolete.
Dead Petz offers an uncensored look at Miley Cyrus’ id and it’s a distillation of an artist’s soul that is both rare and wonderful, delivered so effortlessly off-the-cuff that it may occasionally sound haphazard. But there’s always an exacting method to her freewheeling madness—or, as she sings on the intoxicating album-closing piano ballad “Twinkle Song”: “I had a dream that I didn’t give a f—, but I give a f–.”