The last time we encountered Miley Cyrus, the pop provocateur was flying high above the Wells Fargo Center floor while using a giant hot dog as means of transportation. Or maybe she was stark naked, swinging back and forth while licking her chain on her “Wrecking Ball” video. Or she could have been waving a foam finger while grinding her hips into the crotch of creepy Robin Thicke at the MTV VMAs.
Or was that all just a dream?
“Feels like I just woke up, like all this time I’ve been asleep,” the 24-year-old showbiz vet sings at the start of the title cut and opening track of her new album, Younger Now (RCA ** 1/2). “Even though it’s not who I am, I’m not afraid of who I used to be.”
It’s a pop star’s prerogative — if not a prerequisite of the job — to project a fresh image and a new narrative from project to project. “No one stays the same,” Cyrus sings on the title song, and in its winking, all-covered-up, old-fashioned video. “Change is a thing you can count on.”
With Younger Now, Cyrus is in the business of retreating to the innocent Miley of her Hannah Montana beginnings, and expressing second thoughts about the button-pushing of her 2013 Bangerz and more truly outlandish 2015 collaboration with Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz.
In May, when rolling out the new, tamer Miley on Younger Now’s lead single, “Malibu,” she told interviewers, “I’m always going to be the naked girl on the wrecking ball … I should have thought about how long that was going to follow me around,” and announced she’s putting hip-hop behind her. “I can’t listen to [hypersexual] lyrics anymore. … I am so not that.”
But once the genie’s out, can you put bad girl Miley back in the bottle? After taking hip-hop to the bank (and being accused of brazen cultural appropriation) with the Mike WiLL Made-It-produced earworm “We Can’t Stop,” are Cyrus fans going to be satisfied with tamer Younger Now ballads such as “Miss You So Much” and “She’s Not Him”?
That remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: The Younger Now Cyrus is not as much fun as her irresponsible, tongue-wagging predecessor. The new album, produced by Oren Yoel, makes a self-consciously grown-up move to reconnect with her mainstream pop roots, as well as her birthright as the first born of “Achy Break Heart” country singer Billy Ray Cyrus.
To that end, she duets with her godmother, Dolly Parton, on “Rainbowland,” a catchy celebration of inclusion that kicks off with a recording of Parton leaving her a voicemail. “We are rainbows, me and you / Every color, every hue,” they sing together, charmingly. “Let’s shine through.”
Younger Now is by no means a country record, however. It’s more of a buttoned-up pop, singer-songwriter collection that’s rarely thrilling. Like Lady Gaga, Cyrus is a bold-faced pop star known for over-the-top showmanship and playing with sexual identity who is also an old-school professional. In other words, she really can sing, and she’s pretty good at writing perfectly competent romantic pop songs. She does both of those things effectively enough throughout Younger Now, whether leaning toward dance beats on “Thinkin’,” or rocking out on “Love Someone.” But what’s distressing about Younger Now is not that’s it bad, but something worse for a used-to-be outrageous pop star: It’s kind of boring.