Surprise albums are becoming so common that the element of surprise isn’t enough. Artists really need to have something special to offer. Beyonce managed this with her 2013 self-titled album, which was a shock in terms of the way it was released and the music she created. In contrast, Wilco’s surprise album from a couple months ago turned out to be another slightly underwhelming Wilco release. Miley Cyrus has gone the Beyonce route. Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz is the most pleasant surprise of the year so far.
Miley struck up a friendship with Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips 18 months ago, and that has been a big influence on her and this record (they produced 14 of the 23 songs). Interestingly, despite many of the ballads having a feel of Yoshimi-era Flaming Lips, it has a similar atmosphere to 2009’s Embryonic, which was The Flaming Lips reinventing their sound after the slightly stale At War With The Mystics. Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz has the sprawling and slightly unfinished feel that made Embryonic so exciting.
The opener, ‘Dooo It!’ is both the weakest song on Dead Petz and a red herring. It gives the impression that this is going to be as messy as The Flaming Lips and Their Heady Fwends album, with Miley being a guest star on yet another of their vanity projects. The lyrics, “Yeah I smoke pot, yeah I love peace” are Miley addressing her critics head on.
Things change with the second song, ‘Karen Don’t Be Sad’ indicating this will be Miley’s album no matter who else is involved. The most striking thing about this song is Miley’s vocal — which is clear and a stunning performance. Miley sings, “Karen don’t be sad, they’re just a bunch of fools, you can make them powerless, don’t let them make the rules”. It’s so far away from the throwaway nature of the opener. I just hope people don’t dismiss this album before they get to hear this moment (imagine turning off Visions by Grimes based on the misleading intro and not hearing ‘Genesis’ and ‘Oblivion’).
The subtle beauty of ‘Karen Don’t Be Sad’ is continued on ‘The Floyd Song’, a sad tribute to her dog, the first of the dead petz. The gorgeous backing vocals on the last verse, recall the textures that Rufus Wainwright puts in his finest moments. These are two of the most heartfelt songs on Dead Petz and are good indicators of the downtempo ballads that are to come.
The two highlights of Dead Petz are the space ballads, ‘Space Boots’ and ‘Cyrus Skies’. Swirling synths and another great vocal make ‘Space Boots’ a rich and special moment. The mix of synths, fuzzy guitars and gorgeous melody brings to mind the most beautiful St Vincent songs (I Prefer Your Love, Prince Johnny). ‘Cyrus Skies’ is even better. It begins with Miley’s voice in a low register and it gets higher until the chorus when she really soars singing, “I’ve been alive but I’ve been a liar”. The switch back to her deep confessional vocals on the second verse when she sings, “I’ve seen death, I’ve seen truth” is striking and is reminiscent of Madonna at her most commanding. These are the two most fully realised songs on Dead Petz, which often has a demo feel. The way Miley uses her voice throughout this record is one of its biggest strengths.
’Bang Me Box’ is one of many songs where Miley openly sings about sex with lines like “I want yours inside of me, don’t forget I like licking”, before the very catchy chorus, “I want you to bang my box”. Musically it stands out on the record. Its slinky bassline and Miley’s sultry vocal make it sound like new wave R&B. It’s one of the more commercial sounding songs. There are a few other potential hits too. ‘I Forgive Yiew’ sounds like it would fit on Gwen Stefani’s solo albums. It contains the album’s most quotable lyric, “You’re lucky I’m doing my yoga or you might be dead”. ‘1 Sun’ sounds more like Lady Gaga than Lady Gaga has sounded in years (it gets bonus points for referencing the mighty Grace Jones), and ‘BB Talk’ is a goofy but charming bubblegum pop song that could catch on.
‘I Get So Scared’ is a reflective and tender moment. Miley sings, “I get so scared thinking I’ll never get over you”. The understated guitar complements the lyrics perfectly. Often the themes of Dead Petz go back to drug use and sex, themes that people may associate with Miley’s perceived hedonistic lifestyle, but this is also a record about heartbreak and loss.
Along with The Flaming Lips, Dead Petz has other guest features. Big Sean’s cameo on the hazy ‘Tangerine’ is a perfect match. His laidback delivery features my favourite lyric on Dead Petz, “Seems like everyone I know is getting married, everyone else getting buried, life should come with a sign saying results may vary”.
‘Pablow The Blowfish’ has been a talking point of this record. It’s a simple piano ballad that’s an ode to Miley’s recently deceased fish. It’s hard not to be moved when Miley breaks down in tears halfway through the song. It isn’t clear whether Miley is poking fun with this song — the abrupt end followed by her, “damn”, and a laugh indicates she might not be totally serious. But for a moment you really feel her and that’s just enough to make the song a triumph, albeit a ridiculous one.
Dead Petz has the sense of creative freedom and experimentation that Robbie Williams had on his critically panned (but often brilliant) Rudebox album, and it documents a teen star’s transition into adulthood as uniquely as Britney Spears did on her brilliant Blackout record. Sonically Dead Petz’ closest comparison is Sky Ferreira’s brilliant Night Time, My Time. It has a similar low key pop production.
Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz is 93 minutes long and unsurprisingly isn’t a perfect album. Some of the ideas aren’t quite fleshed out, but there is a lot of replay value as the highs are incredible. Even some of the flaws on this record have enough charm that you’re drawn back to them.
Dead Petz is Miley Cyrus with a creative vision, putting the self-expressiveness of her personal life into her music. The more grown up Miley Cyrus (compared to her Disney years) that put out the sometimes great Bangerz has already moved on. Musically, it appears she wants to push things forward and surprise people. It’ll be interesting to see just how many people embrace her progression.
Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz is available to stream for free on Soundcloud.