From the hyperpolarizing emergence of the Trump Administration to social justice activists battling actual Nazis in the streets, the American zeitgeist has taken a sharp turn towards the serious over the last couple of years. That shift had the secondary effect of making the frivolities of the last decade age even faster than they normally would; to put it another way, it feels like way longer than four years since Miley Cyrus’ twerk heard ’round the world and somehow even longer still since a raunchy VMAs dance was a topic worthy of vigorous public discourse.
The world has changed since 2013, when the well-earned shock of Bangerz and “Wrecking Ball” gave Cyrus her first pair of well-deserved Billboard No. 1 hits. Cyrus changed along with it. After campaigning hard for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, she spent the immediate shell-shocked months following Election Day working on new music under a social media blackout. How much of that was genuine self-care and how much was a marketing ploy meant to drum up hype for the new record is debatable, but the result isn’t: when she returned for a controversial Billboard cover story this past May, Cyrus was sans smeared glitter, sans hip-hop appropriations, and sans just about every other provocative signifier (what up, unicorn dick?) that came to define her gonzo pop persona over the last four years.
Clad in cutoffs and cowboy boots, the new Miley reflected Cyrus’ post-election soul-searching, her happy relationship with actor Liam Hemsworth, and her desire, inspired by her recurring network gig as a coach on The Voice, to reconnect with the populations of red state America who nurtured her as she grew up and disappointed her last November.
Taken on their own, those tensions have the potential required to make a great record. Younger Now is not that record. Instead, it’s a safe collection of back-to-basics pop country tunes, billed as unguarded and confessional and calibrated for broad appeal rather than boundary-pushing brashness.
The record solidifies its thesis early, with the one-two combo of openers “Younger Now” and “Malibu” laying out the (sometimes hand-holdingly specific) evidence that Miley’s left the world of clubs and molly behind in favor of long drives on coastal roads and canoodling with Thor’s brother. Each one has its moments — the title track opens with a lovely field recording of frogs in a rainstorm, and the chorus on “Malibu” shimmers along with the sun-baked mid-tempo luxury of a pretty good Best Coast song — but neither one strings enough of those moments together to transcend Cyrus’ suddenly by-the-numbers songcraft and longtime collaborator Oren Yoel’s anonymous production.
Pleasant disappointments aside, the record’s biggest missteps come when Cyrus ventures outside herself and into the wider world. “Rainbowland”, a duet between Cyrus and her godmother, Dolly Parton, is the biggest offender here. After grabbing attention with the help of a charming voicemail from Parton, the promising ballad that follows falls apart under the weight of its anodyne, let’s-just-make-the-world-better lyrics. Cyrus has never been shy about engaging with political causes, but her increasing tendency to simply decry “hurt and hate” in favor of tepid unity (a sentiment which also invades closer “Inspired”) feels a little naïve or at least uselessly unspecific.
There are moments on Younger Now that hint at what a braver, more focused version of this record might’ve sounded like. Coming one after the other, ballads “Miss You So Much” and “I Would Die or You” find Cyrus approaching real honesty and vulnerability in her lyrics and turning in the record’s best vocal performances in the process (at one brief point, she harnesses the same elemental power that makes Neko Case’s voice soar). But then, just as things seem a little promising, the limp “Thinkin'” struts in like a Carrie Underwood c-side and firmly sets the tone for the record’s toothless closing third.
You could throw a lot of adjectives Miley Cyrus’ way over the last few years, but until now, “boring” wasn’t one of them. Unfortunately, that’s about the only accurate word to describe the majority of the album. Rather than marrying the off-the-wall pop excess of her most recent work with Cyrus’ undeniable country bona fides, the record instead collects a listless set of songs satisfied with being inoffensive.
It’s a hard reset for Miley Cyrus, but one that doesn’t quite take all the way. Cyrus came too far into her own during her years as a provocateur to go back to the Nashville-lite world that Younger Now offers. In this year of extremes, such an overcorrection is forgivable. If subsequent records don’t take her back out of this comfort zone, in one direction or another, Cyrus might find time in our national conversation increasingly (and justifiably) limited.
Essential Tracks: “Miss You So Much”, “I Would Die for You”