Friday, October 4, 2013

Female Rebel Yell: Miley Cyrus "Bangerz" Review

"I'm a female rebel, can't you tell?" Miley Cyrus deadpans early into new album Bangerz. And given the year she's had (and we've had with her) it's hard to disagree with that kind of sentiment.

Bangerz comes just as MTV debuts a documentary where she talks "talking over the whole world" with "more than just a record" and a year that's had her "shock the world" via the MTV VMAs and respond rather rudely to Sinead O'Connor's open-letter hand wringing over her new found love of using her body to mark out her adulthood. 

The teen star grows up by getting sexy thing is a mold that certainly fits where Cyrus has landed but there's more to it than just "I'm grown now so there goes my clothes". 

Cyrus has always been something of a gawky presence even at the peak of her Hannah Montana fame, her stage presence having a kind of off beat energy that suggested that her drawly, country-tinged voice and her knack for fanning controversy would see her past her TV days.

So in an odd way, for her to swing her sound into a country-pop-R'n'B hybrid seems like the awkward and all over the place a move as you'd expect from a 20-year old multi millionaire who has spent a chunk of their almost-adult life in public.

You desperately want Bangerz to be a killer pop album. Especially as the Sinead O'Connor back and forth exposes Cyrus in lacking a degree of tact and yet another over the top collab with Terry Richardson emerges showing even more of the starlet. But can it ever really live up to such controversy-baiting hype?

Ultimately it's an interesting listen that never truly gels the way it should. Certainly the one-two punch of We Can't Stop and Wrecking Ball sets up most of the album's template. Woozy, mid-tempo hip-hop gone pop cuts where Miley tries (but often fails) to sing and deliver in a rapper aping way that doesn't always come off. Then there are plenty of surprisingly impressive ballads where Miley's voice take proceedings in a powerful direction and a slice of something vulnerable seems to appear.

Opener Adore You is a sweet love song with a fairly sparse backdrop giving it's emotional feel even more power. Then We Can't Stop arrives all false bravado and "I'm so down" lyrical flourishes up top but coupled that weird sad undertow (It's like that feeling of not wanting the party to end because you know what you have to deal with when you leave will be ten times worse) implying that Bangerz might be a darker affair than promised.

SMS (Bangerz) sweeps in to show that is a false hope. Sure it's got Britney involved and it's laced with attitude but bar Miley screeching about strutting her stuff and Brit-Brit doing her best robotic deadpan on a verse it's unmemorable. For all the nutty production ideas nothing about it sticks as a pop song. 4X4 follows a similar template of would-be kook but it's hard to take seriously despite Pharrell concocting an impressive hip-hop hoedown beat and Nelly trying to inject some pop-rap star quality, it's basically the Hoedown Throwdown given a wannabe hoodrat makeover.

Roping in R'N'B hitmaker Future on My Darlin' with his frequent collaborator (and this album's main producer) Mike Will Made It should be an impressive moment but apart from lifting the hook of Ben E. King's Stand By Me the rest of it feels by the numbers. It pales in comparison to cuts like Loveee Song that Future and Mike Will did for Rihanna or their track Where You Go with Ciara. Those tunes felt like melancholic, honest, futuristic R'n'B songs. This just sounds like a melody-free demo for something similar.

Wrecking Ball arriving halfway into the album is a reminder of just what Miley could be gunning for and why chasing a glimmer of pop would have lifted much of the album out of the doldrums. It's been a hard song to escape and as eye-roll inducing as the video may be it's still a cracking single, mournful but also passionate and well sung. It's how to make a bold, ear-worm pop ballad work in 2013 and little else on the album comes close. It's interesting that this song ropes in Dr. Luke and co. when Cyrus avoids the usual hired-songwriters approach elsewhere. She probably could have done with a little more pop polish.

Love Money Party slides into view afterwards with Miley and guest Big Sean (This is an album riddled with big name cameos) weighing up how to balance money with love and partying. It's as blank as it sounds but the chorus has a swing to it that means at least this number bounces in at a better clip than similar efforts elsewhere.

Get It Right (let's pretend it's not a hashtag title shall we?) is a rare moment of the Bangerz template coming together properly and why Cyrus should have had Pharrell take on more of the album's heavy lifting. It's shamelessly sexual but also utterly fun with it and it's a breezy, typically Pharrell driven cut given a perfectly executed performance by Cyrus. This is where her new brashly sexy image seems to finally fit with what she's singing about and she sounds confident, relaxed and in charge in a way she often doesn't elsewhere.

Drive might take it's cue from pop's never ending (And somewhat boring at this point) love for dubstep but the passionate delivery by Cyrus turns it into an angry but heartbreaking mid-tempo cut. It's the kind of thing that will be tabloid catnip to those dissecting her split from Liam Hemmsworth but it's an example of how gloomy, grown-up pop can be in the Miley Cyrus stable when she wants it to be.

Sadly, FU and Do My Thang take things a step back. FU might have Cyrus rock an almost-Adele style vocal but she never quite lives up the melodramatic dubstep-piano swirl of the production and the text message lingo lyrics undermine her fiery kiss-off. Do My Thang would make good Rihanna album filler, the nearest the album gets to the souped-up rave pop of the last few years. It's a "let's live it up" banger and it's enjoyable if throwaway but has a disastrous rap portion that Cyrus is way, way too try hard to ever pull off.

Maybe You're Right plays like a cousin to Wrecking Ball, a downbeat look back at a lover left behind. The involvement of songwriting golden boy John Shanks (whose work with everyone from Michelle Branch to Sheryl Crow shows his considerable skill as a pop-rock hitmaker) feels obvious when you see how the country-pop heart of this one is what stays in your brain. It's a fitting place to end the album on but Someone Else wheels into view, a tweaked out synth R'N'B soundscape that sounds great but feels thrown together as a song. 

As is becoming the pop album norm, the bonus tracks offer some gems. Two Pharrell cuts: On My Own and Rooting for My Baby are well put together pop songs with a smooth R'N'B soundboard. Rooting for My Baby melds acoustic guitars and a mellow groove and it's the best she sounds anywhere on the album. On My Own is not unlike some of the 80s referencing pop funk Pharrell served up on Madonna's underrated Hard Candy and bursts into a truly memorable hook (Something the standard edition of this album could have done with more of). Hands in the Air, another Mike Will Made It number, is a fairly generic and filler-y hip-hop cut that adds little.

Bangerz is an uneven and disappointing listen. While the ambition of all involved to create a melting pot of styles into one strange beast is perfect for the world of pop music (Where new styles and underground production tricks are frequently swallowed up in the search for something new) there's too many songs desperately searching for a memorable melody and a performance from Miley Cyrus that substitutes posturing for any kind of tune. The moments where it shines hint at something truly great to come from Miss Cyrus, but after the antics she's been up to you can't help but feel she could have spent a little bit more time knuckling down with the songs first before trying to scandal her way around 2013.

Bangerz is released on Monday in the UK and Tuesday in the US and is out now in Ireland. 

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