The tongue-wagging, teddy bear-molesting, twerking phenomenon that has become Miley Cyrus’s public persona can be distressing to some. After a VMA performance guaranteed to spawn tasteless Halloween costumes and backlash the likes of which has seldom been seen, Cyrus has unleashed her third Hannah-free album, “Bangerz.”
The album opens on a breathy note but doesn’t stay sappy for long, launching right into the lead single, “We Can’t Stop.” Cyrus brings in enough grown-up guest artists to give her some credibility (although Nelly’s verse on the awkward polka romp “4×4” is a confusing moment on an already confused track) and belts her heartbreak nearly as well as she waves her freak flag. The collaboration between Cyrus and Mike WiLL and a handful of others leaves nothing to be desired. Every track supports Cyrus’s superb vocal performance and proves that, with help, this girl knows how to engineer a catchy tune.
Indeed, if anything is missing here it’s a clear picture of the artist behind the hooks and shrieks. There are moments that ring deliciously vulnerable: “Wrecking Ball” is a cry-your-eyes-out-in-bed anthem, a plea for forgiveness as much as it is a denunciation of her wrongdoer. “Drive” is a kind of furious throb, lyrically clichéd but well-executed. “Someone Else” is nothing short of bitter. Cyrus owns her pain and unleashes it on power notes, creating the kind of revenge music thousands of high school girls will shortly be using to caption their post-breakup profile pictures. But at least we get clarity from the anger. Cyrus has been wronged and she isn’t having it. It’s the troublemaker partier who trips up this album.
All bets were off with “They ask me how I keep a man / I keep a battery pack” on “SMS (Bangerz)” because evidently, Hannah Montana is not only dead, she is six feet under and forgotten. This album can veer from jilted to simply bizarre. The wailing on “FU” may be the most insane any pop star has sounded on a record in recent memory, but it’s difficult to dislike. It’s too scary for that. Cyrus finally finds balance between bump-and-grind danceable and straight up crazy on “Do My Thang,” swelling to a catchy chorus between taunting gems like “You think I’m strange b**** / gets bananas like a f*****’ ’rangutan, b****,” all over a beat that, blasted at high enough volume, is manufactured to induce twerking. Tough-girl proclamations aside, however, it is difficult to gauge Cyrus’ sincerity.
In interviews and on red carpets, Cyrus comes off as very much the girl-next-door gone wild, tattooed and lipsticked and all grown up. But at the end of the day, she’s only 20 years old. She’s coming off of a bad breakup, she’s partying with some of the best hip hop producers in the business and perhaps scariest of all, she’s one of us and doesn’t seem to know it. Confused and hurt she may be, but Cyrus tweets to her friends and posts selfies to Instagram with the rest of us. “Bangerz” is another pop album that will probably flare and fade into the depths of many iTunes libraries between Adam Lambert’s last hit single and Ke$ha’s duet with Iggy Pop, but the longer you listen, the clearer the picture becomes.