Welcome to Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, or, as it should be known: Miley Cyrus’ sprawling, drug-induced, wet nightmare—an album so sexy, terrifying, and utterly nonsensical it defies precedent.
These adjectives, of course, embody Miley’s goals. While she began as a musician, in recent years Cyrus has veered closer to performance artist than singer. When she does take a break from tongue dancing and flashing her left nipple at the VMAs, she reminds us all she actually possesses an incredible vocal talent, and the results are often stunning. Most of the time, though, the currency in which Miley traffics is shock, which makes her surprise release really not a surprise at all.
All this raises a question: On what criteria should we evaluate Dead Petz? As a traditional LP, the album is sprawling and unfocused, 90 minutes of mostly confusing songs loosely coalesced around sex, drugs, and the constant reaffirmation that yes, Miley likes those things. As a stop in the meta-arc of performance that is Miley Cyrus’ life, the album is a castoff, exciting and enjoyable, but lacking material that further develops the rebellious, society-screwing narrative she already demonstrates on television and in person. Hell, even as attempted pop-pornography, the album can never quite decide how sexual it will allow itself to be. “Bang Me Box” is the most in your face song on the album, but even there she resorts to euphemism, describing “licking it” or wanting “it inside,” but never reconciling the strange dichotomy between explicit verbs and her innuendo about the act of sex itself. Similarly, the pictures on album’s streaming website, full of shots of Miley’s face dripping milk or glitter, allude to porno-style facials, but we’re long past the point at which allusion is shocking. If Dead Petz aspires to hardcore, it does so softly and without commitment.
Perhaps the best analogue for Cyrus’ strange, frequently beautiful, and unabashedly indulgent album is the most surprising: Sufjan Stevens’ five EP Christmas carol box-set, Silver and Gold. To listen to either Stevens’ sometimes heretical Christmas opus or Cyrus’ glitter-induced musical sexual fantasy is to fully submerge oneself in the personal particularities and idiosyncrasies of the artist. Yes, these are vanity projects, but would we prefer our musicians kept their most weird and wild moments for themselves? To demonize Dead Petz is to demonize the personal, the dense, the uncomfortable, the strange, and the sprawling. And shit, it’s free. Listening to Dead Petz is a choice with no downside, a choice I find myself making more and more often over the last week.
Because, and here’s the sticky truth, if you can force yourself to slog through the bullshit and actually pay close attention to the album, you’ll emerge from the experience interested and engaged. “Pablo the Blowfish” is borderline child psych babble about a pet fish, but then she’ll save it all with line about eating sushi: “Watching my friends eat my friends ruined my appetite.” “Karen Don’t Be Sad” is basically a Yoshimi B-side, but it’s also excellent, well-performed, melodically intriguing, and just the right amount of sentimental. Even “BB Talk”, a song about the embarrassment of PDA, grows into a meditation sex as a cure for relationship troubles, a rewarding exploration of how physical intimacy is easier than emotional intimacy. Ultimately, between the lazy attempts at shock necessary for Miley to save face, the album offers a hidden study on the relationship between drugs, intimacy, and even privacy. For an album by someone widely considered an exhibitionist, Dead Petz is packed with hidden arguments for reserve, calm, vulnerability, and sensitivity. That’s just not what we, as a society, have decided we will look for in Miley Cryus.
This is why we give musicians the license to self-indulge—inevitably, when great artists set off to be silly, they return to the subjects they find most meaningful and illuminate them. Yes, there are horrible songs. But we also get “Space Boots”, “Lighter”, and the lovely hook off “Cyrus Skies”—“I’ve been alive, but I’ve been a liar.” At this point, Miley Cyrus can do whatever the hell she wants and it will make her money and keep us all interested. We should count ourselves as fortunate that all she did was give us something confusing, and take the questionably intentional spots of beauty that come with it.
Appropriately, Dead Petz ends with “Twinkle Song”, an absolutely horrendous piece of music that still proves one thing conclusively: Miley Cyrus can goddam sing. The song finishes with a chord-less slam on the piano, an afterthought to its ignominious conclusion, and Miley saying under her breath, “Fuck, yeah.” It’s an appropriate end to an altogether half-baked album. Still, while eating too much raw cookie dough will make you sick, remember that it’s often more delicious than the cookie. B PLUS