Endless Summer Vacation
Who, exactly, is Miley Cyrus? Is she the country music progeny turned former child star turned pop provocateur, twerking on awards shows and throwing middle fingers to critics? Is she the hopeful young balladeer, lending her naturally emotive voice to Top 40 anthems like 2009’s “The Climb”? Or is she the rock star in hiding, getting trippy with The Flaming Lips on their collaboration Dead Petz and channeling her inner Joan Jett on 2020’s Plastic Hearts? While her shifting identities can distract from her formidable musicianship, it is exactly this restless, chameleonic nature that makes Cyrus one of our more engaging and enduring pop stars. On eighth LP Endless Summer Vacation, Cyrus finally finds a way to bring these seemingly disparate parts together. She tapped four producers to help helm the album, each with an ear toward one of Cyrus’ primary lanes. Greg Kurstin (Adele, Maren Morris) brings his trademark gravitas to the cutting but compassionate breakup ballad “Jaded.” Kid Harpoon, who recently took home a Grammy for Harry Styles’ Harry’s House, has fingerprints all over the LP, as on powerhouse opener “Flowers,” Cyrus’ biggest single since 2013’s “Wrecking Ball.” Tyler Johnson, a fellow Nashvillian with credits ranging from Taylor Swift to Toni Braxton, pairs well with Cyrus, his own catholic tastes dovetailing nicely with hers. Mike WiLL Made-It, a longtime Cyrus collaborator, jumps in on tracks like the Brandi Carlile feature “Thousand Miles,” which feels country-adjacent but ultimately transcends genre, and the dark, industrial Sia collab “Muddy Feet,” which boasts one of the LP’s most biting lyrics: “You smell like perfume that I didn’t purchase.” Lines like that may provoke curiosity into Cyrus’ personal life—she’s made no effort to conceal that much of the material was inspired by her divorce from Liam Hemsworth—but the music itself is sturdy enough to transcend tabloid fodder. There are also other notable—and at times unexpected—co-writers on the LP. Cult-favorite indie filmmaker Harmony Korine (Spring Breakers, Kids) is credited on the woozy, gauzy “Handstand,” which lyrically references one of his paintings, “Big Twitchy.” Acclaimed R&B/electronic artist James Blake joins on album highlight “Violet Chemistry,” which feels like a spiritual and sonic cousin of Taylor Swift’s Midnights cut “Lavender Haze.” Country artist and songwriter Caitlyn Smith, who co-wrote the Plastic Hearts standout “High,” contributes to “Island,” a groovy, low-key banger about the double-edged sword of independence. Cyrus closes Endless Summer Vacation with a demo version of “Flowers,” the kind of bonus track that can, more often than not, function as little more than filler. In this case, though, the contrast between the song in its infancy and its buoyant, assertive final form is striking and emotional. The hard-won strength of the studio version is there, but it's drenched in a raw, gritty sadness that sounds painfully real. In its studio incarnation, you can hear that Cyrus buys what she’s selling, that she’s not only content to be her own companion but actually prefers her own company. In this demo, though, her words seem to function more as a compass than a proclamation, a hopeful road map out of the woods of heartbreak. For an artist whose musical talent is often overshadowed by her offstage antics, this glimpse into Cyrus’ creative process is a welcome one, and a fitting way to end her most fully realized album yet.