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The Growing Pains of Miley Cyrus

On her new album, ‘Younger Now,’ the once-controversial singer grabs the songwriting reins and drives toward a gentler sound. But shifting direction for a third time in five years won’t be easy.

Miley Cyrus Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Just as the words “TV-14” prepare viewers for mildly provocative content, Miley Cyrus’s last album, Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, began with an introduction: “Yeah I smoke pot! Yeah I love peace! But I don’t give a fuck! I ain’t no hippie!” The interminably long 23-song record played out like a never-ending bong-water gurgle. And yet Dead Petz’ philosophy is succinctly captured in that, uh, couplet. Weed: good. Fucks given: none. Less than two years later, though, at the beginning of her press tour promoting her far less profane new album, Younger Now, Cyrus made it clear that she had amended at least one line of her personal constitution. Appearing on talk shows and magazine covers in Elly May Clampett couture, she consistently managed to sneak in a sound bite about how she’d given up smoking pot. “I stopped smoking because to sit here and to talk about what I’m doing,” she told Jimmy Fallon in June, “I wanted to be really clear, because I’m actually the most passionate about what I’m doing with this record.”

And yet, it’s unfortunate that Miley can’t blame some of Younger Now’s lyrics on weed. “I never went boatin’ / Don’t get how they are floatin’,” she sings on her breezy, formless summer single “Malibu,” before musing “That’s when I make a wish / To swim away with the fish.” Younger Now is the first album that is almost entirely penned by Cyrus herself (she shares writing credits on every track with producer Oren Yoel, who played all the instruments), and I am sorry to report that the lazy, sub-Seussian rhymes of “Malibu” are not anomalous. She wants to trap a lover “in a locket, or in a pocket.” The bridge of a song called “Bad Mood” resembles an epic poem written, in crayon, by a kindergartener:

You know it’s gone on way too long
And you know it’s wrong
But I know I’m strong
I don’t give up
And when it gets rough
I get tough
I’ve had enough

The album’s best song is the warm, wistful second single “Younger Now,” but it’s no coincidence that its most evocative phrase is a nod to a more accomplished lyricist. Bob Dylan was just 23 when he recorded “My Back Pages,” folk’s great ode to Benjamin-Buttoning. At 24, Cyrus is now a year older than Dylan was when he released Another Side of Bob Dylan, and although Younger Now has been touted as her arrival as a serious songwriter, it is not of the caliber to inspire a songwriter 50 years from now to title their album, say, Boats: Don’t Get How They Are Floatin’.

In her near-quarter-century of existence, though, Cyrus has already passed through at least nine lives. She’s been the showbiz toddler her famous father showed off on talk show appearances and a precocious Nashville daughter to whom Dad’s friend Waylon Jennings taught guitar chords while they were all sitting around the kitchen table. She’s been a teen pop star and played one on TV. She popped in gleaming grills for a brief flirtation with hip-hop, and just as easily popped them out to make a my-first-acid-trip record with Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips. She’s covered Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and the Replacements’ “Androgynous,” both quite convincingly. She has identified as pansexual; she is engaged to the conventionally dreamy heartthrob she met in 2009 on the set of a Nicholas Sparks movie.

Sometimes Cyrus’s many contradictions are thrilling—an expansion of the space mainstream female pop stars are allowed to inhabit, a liberating obliteration of the rules that used to hold them back. But just as often, they’re incredibly frustrating in how easily and mindlessly Cyrus is able to erase her past and start afresh. Her recent music could be uniquely textured, given the collected detritus of her past. But Cyrus’s insistence on scrubbing her former selves into nonexistence makes her current incarnation feel transparent and thin—a single stroke of paint on a thick, sunlit pane of glass.

The sole through line in Cyrus’s music is her distinctive voice. Even since her teens, it’s had an odd power, syrup-thick and as sturdy as an old tree. It’s an instrument best suited to ballads, like her breakout hit “The Climb” and the undeniable “Wrecking Ball,” but it’s got a built-in melancholy that animates even her upbeat pop hits (“We Can’t Stop,” “Party in the U.S.A.”) with a haunting chill of wistfulness and longing. It’s a stronger, stranger instrument than she usually gets credit for, but I wish Younger Now had better material to spotlight it. Cyrus’s downtempo songs are shapeless and low on energy. The hazy “I Would Die for You” lacks the passion hinted by its title, while the closing acoustic track, “Inspired,” conjures only the vaguest emotions. Younger Now occasionally has its moments (“Love Someone” has the cocky swagger of rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson), but on the whole it feels underwhelming, with all the razzle-dazzle of a fatigued Elvis impersonator.

Or maybe it’s that glammy, showman-like energy that this album needs more of—am I wrong to suggest that the next Miley Cyrus album should be all covers? Somewhere along the line, pop music lost its appreciation for artful interpretations, the kind that appeared on, say, Bryan Ferry’s magnificent first solo album, These Foolish Things (which contains the weirdest version of “It’s My Party” ever put to tape). Seeking atonement for her past sins, the world demanded that Miley Cyrus Show Her Serious Side, and because we have limited definitions of what that looks like for a modern pop star, she assumed it must mean Write Her Own Songs. But Cyrus’s songwriting skills are not on par with the force of her voice—and that’s fine, if she recognizes it.

This past weekend, the day after Younger Now came out, she flew from her record-release show in Nashville to Madison Square Garden, where she joined Billy Joel on stage and (along with Paul Simon) sang a soulful “You May Be Right” in spangled bell-bottoms. She held her own beside those legends, a simple reminder of how much sparkle and personality her voice can add to other people’s songs, and what a compelling interpreter she’s become of the American rock songbook. Same goes for her poignant performance of Dido’s “No Freedom” Monday night on The Tonight Show; it speaks volumes not only that Cyrus was the one called upon to sing a tribute to the victims of the Las Vegas shooting, and that she was able, so gracefully, to rise to the occasion. Though less on the nose, these are more convincing assertions of her maturity than anything on Younger Now.