In the two years since Miley Cyrus’s latex-covered butt cheeks twerked their way to worldwide notoriety at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, the ex-Disney star’s very name has begun functioning as an adjective; code for a one-woman, id-driven, peace-loving, weed and molly-fueled—and often exasperating—spectacle.That’s in part thanks to dad Billy Ray Cyrus, whose mantra every time the press shows up hoping for a fatherly meltdown after his daughter has flashed a boob, smoked a blunt, or rubbed her ass into an old man’s crotch on TV is always, “She’s just being Miley.”
“Even when she was a little girl, we told her, ‘Hey, baby, do what you do and have fun doing it. Do it because you love it, not because you have to,’” Papa Cyrus told E! after Sunday night’s VMAs show, which his daughter hosted. “Seeing her happy is the greatest thing ever.”But Cyrus has earned more than just happiness from “being Miley.” The 22-year-old has earned the kind of freedom and power enjoyed by only the most elite artists in show business: powerful enough to surprise-release a meandering, 23-track psychedelic manifesto independent of her contract with RCA Records, and free enough to do it entirely according to her own artistic vision, without a word of interference from dudes in suits.“Miley Cyrus continues to be a groundbreaking artist,” the label said in a statement after Cyrus dropped the album for free on Soundcloud. “She has a strong point of view regarding her art and expressed her desire to share this body of work with her fans directly. RCA Records is pleased to support Miley’s unique musical vision.”
Cyrus herself recognizes how rare it is for a woman of 22, in an industry that thrives on commodifying women, to have enough leverage to choose her own producers and collaborators, use her own money (a paltry $50,000 in this case), write or co-write every song, then distribute the finished product at will, while her label overlords happily bow to her artistic intentions. Her “advisers,” she told The New York Times, “said they’d never seen someone at my level, especially a woman, have this much freedom. I literally can do whatever I want. It’s insane.”It’s definitely insane. Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, named for its mournful odes to the artist’s dead dog Floyd and blowfish Pablow, both benefits and suffers from a lack of focus, most evident in the album's nearly two-hour-long running time. Too many tracks here should have been saved for deluxe issue bonuses or B-sides.
And yet the album is fascinating in its demo-like quality and consequent transparency. Lyrical stoner rambles muse on drugs, love, sex, our deepest fears, and death. And while her onstage persona is a garish, neon-splattered hurricane screaming “Look at me, I’m so bad!” (New York magazine’s Lindsay Zoladz accurately characterized Cyrus’s VMAs hosting gig as “Miley’s Super Sweet 16—an elaborate and expensive party thrown by a girl who has recently discovered that her rich parents won’t actually ground her for smoking marijuana”), Cyrus’s voice throughout Dead Petz is more of a mellow guide, floating with us through a cosmic haze of smoke.“Dooo It!” the album-opener Cyrus chose for her gonzo, drag queen-filled VMAs show closer, is the album’s most direct descendant of Bangerz, that 2013 celebration of hip-hop dilettantism and killer love ballads. But it’s Miley’s BFF, the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, who exerts the most influence over Dead Petz, with co-writing credits on 11 of the album’s 23 songs. “Karen Don’t Be Sad” and “The Floyd Song,” with their melancholy keyboards and evocative, faraway-sounding vocals, sound the most like outtakes from Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.Cyrus’s Bangerz producer, Mike WiLL Made-It, also produced several tracks on Dead Petz, including ethereal standout “Lighter”—though his confidence in the overall product seems less than unshakable, if his defensive tweets about it are any indication. (Shortly after tweeting a cryptic “I tried…” and favoriting a Miley fan’s underwhelmed response to the album, he started broadcasting that “good is good, fuck a genre” and “it was dope to work with Miley on some different shit.” So there.)
But the album’s best moments are Miley unfiltered. On the deeply funny “BB Talk,” Cyrus practically vomits over “the goo”—or excessive PDA her clingy boyfriend puts her through. “Dude as if I’m not fucking awkward enough, you put me in these situations where I look like a dumbass bitch and I’m not a fucking dumbass bitch,” she vents in a stream-of-consciousness ramble in the middle of the track. “I hate all that PDA…You’re sweet and you couldn’t be more opposite of my last dickhead but I just don’t know if I can get over the fucking goo.”“I like when you send me the queen emoji, but when I send back the monkey—you know, the one with the hands over the eyes? That means shit’s getting a little too weird for me,” she concludes.It’s all nutty and unpolished and weird, much like Cyrus herself. Her storytelling chops, honed during her days as a country singer, make a piano ballad about her dead fish Pablow implausibly heart-wrenching, for example. With her voice breaking and nose sniffling, she sings about her regret of not setting Pablow free while he was alive, because she “can’t bear to see something beautiful die in a tank.”And while this album can feel overly long and repetitive, it does provide insight into the halfway point between one musical persona (Bangerz twerking Miley) and the next. Astral-projecting psychic pirate Miley (it could happen), we eagerly await you.