The best moments on Cyrus' new album come when she delves into power ballads.

By Maura Johnston
November 30, 2020 at 06:00 PM EST
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Credit: MTV

The punk-rock styling — a tousled blonde mullet, a Jean Paul Gaultier t-shirt, chains of various sizes — Miley Cyrus sports on the cover of her seventh album doubles as a neon sign to any potential listeners: Plastic Hearts, the Disney star-turned-pop provocateur's newest project, is Cyrus' homage of sorts to the 1980s. It's an appealing time warp. Sure, television screens were smaller, but the pop stars dancing and lip-syncing through videos on MTV felt larger than life, able to dazzle audiences and free of burdens like the 24-hour news cycle and constant social-media chatter.

Cyrus has paid tribute to the era that was modern pop's ground zero before, covering Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" on her 2008 album Breakout and dueting with Ariana Grande on a backyard version Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over" in 2015. Plastic Hearts doubles as a bit of a reset for Cyrus, who'd seemed a bit adrift, release-wise, in the wake of 2017's country-tinged Younger Now. In May 2019 she released She Is Coming, which was supposed to be the first in a series of EPs that would comprise She Is Miley Cyrus; that plan was officially scrapped this August when she released "Midnight Sky," the first single from Plastic Hearts. A flinty rollerskating jam that foregrounds Cyrus' raspy, powerful voice, it's a spiritual and sonic heir to early-era MTV hits like Laura Branigan's "Self Control" and Bonnie Tyler's "Here She Comes," smoldering songs about women on a constant, cloak-of-dark quest for more.

Guest stars Joan Jett and Billy Idol further reveal that Cyrus is looking to rekindle the punk-spirited, pop-minded side of the '80s, as do bonus-edition covers of Blondie's sighing "Heart of Glass" and the Cranberries' stormy "Zombie." (OK, that one's from the '90s, but the Irish band definitely had Blondie in its bloodline). Dua Lipa's own dalliance with that decade's pop legacy makes her a fine foil for Cyrus on the steely "Prisoner." She clearly wants to channel art-pop vibes here and there; the smoky "Gimme What I Want" nicks its beat from Nine Inch Nails' "Closer," while the Jett duet "Bad Karma" revels in the weirdness of using gasps as percussive elements. Cyrus matches Idol sneer-for-sneer on "Night Crawling," which marries the simmering vibes of Cyrus' "See You Again" to the seething menace of Idol's "White Wedding." But, like other synthpop pastiches on the album, it suffers the very 21st-century problem of having the right sounds while lacking a climactic moment; there's an anemic guitar solo, but that's it. (Where's Steve Stevens when you need him?)

Despite Cyrus' disavowal of Younger Now's Nashville sound, the best moments on Plastic Hearts come when she delves into power ballads, which blend the over-the-topness of glam with the teary storytelling of country music. "Angels Like You" is a bad-romance lighter-raiser that lets Cyrus lean into her emotional side, and the sparkling "High" backs up Cyrus' long-I sounds with a massive choir; "Hate Me" revels in its self-pity with guitar filigrees and Cyrus predicting the inebriation quotient of her funeral's attendees, while "Golden G String" looks back on Cyrus' years as a headline-generating dynamo with humor, fluffy clouds of guitar, and middle fingers extended toward those "old boys [holding] all of the cards."

Plastic Hearts, despite its aggressive I-Love-The-80s branding, is a bit of a stopgap album for Cyrus, whose last two years have been marked by a house fire, a divorce, and the passing of her grandmother, as well as the problems plaguing the world at large. It leaves a lot of doors open for Cyrus' next move — whether it's a musical one or a plan where she attempts to reclaim some of those cards she sings of on "Golden G String." B

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