Since at least “Wrecking Ball,” Miley Cyrus has trained us to expect a certain degree of shock and awe in everything she does. Even her runaway global chart-topper “Flowers” hinted at a larger work that was widely assumed to be a straightforward divorce album — maybe a little more dialed-back, but still snarky and defiant in the way she has made an art of over the years.
Her latest release is indeed a breakup album, but it is an introspective and deeply self-aware one that wonders out loud what it means to disentangle your identity from a relationship that no longer exists and come to know yourself all over again.
Having landed during one of the northern hemisphere’s grimmer months, Endless Summer Vacation (★★★★☆) feels like an aspirational vision of easier, more relaxed times. Keeping with her contemplative state of mind, Cyrus leverages contemporary pop production to great effect. Over sunny, kaledioscopic synths paired with warm acoustic elements, she turns inward and sets out to find some peace in her own company.
Beyond giving her tracks an instantly recognizable quality, it should come as no surprise that Cyrus’ signature raspy vocals work uncannily well in the service of a showstopping ballad. She takes full advantage of them to deliver some of the album’s strongest, most affecting tracks, harmonizing beautifully with Brandi Carlile on her roots-inflected folk pop feature, “Thousand Miles,” an upbeat reckoning with unwelcome post-breakup nostalgia.
Her tribute to her late grandmother, “Wonder Woman,” is a slow burner of a closing track that might be easy to overlook alongside some of the more bombastic numbers. In Cyrus’ hands, however, it is a vivid and presumably half-autobiographical portrait of a woman whose strength and inner peace came at the cost of years of private hardships.
Cyrus’ more measured and reserved approach has not come at the expense of her spark or her edge, which can be heard in the frustration underpinning her half-admissions of guilt on “Jaded,” the wild energy of “Handstand,” or the pure venom she spits on “Muddy Feet.”
“I’m about to do somebody,” she snarls on that track, delivering the kind of unsparing teardown that only comes once one’s patience has been stretched to the absolute limit. As measured as she is this time around, it serves as a reminder that she has lost none of her capacity for melodrama. “You” finds her daydreaming about a series of reckless adventures, including her desire to “Drive down to Texas/And flip off my exes,” but as she notes with a hint of sadness in her voice, “only with you.”
Cyrus has noted that Endless Summer Vacation is deliberately divided into a brighter, easier AM act, and a more serious, emotionally fraught PM. The distinction does not necesssarily bear out as clearly in the album as she may have hoped, but does allow her to play with its hit lead single.
“Flowers” ends with the sentiment, “I can love me better than you can,” a line so definitive that it could have been Cyrus’ whole mission statement. But as it turns out, “Flowers” only tells half the story. The superb “Island” serves as a coda to “Flowers,” finding her once again contemplating all the things she can do on her own and for herself, but this time that independence weighs on her. “Stranded in paradise,” she sings, leaving us to wonder whether paradise is worth the isolation, ultimately refusing to give an easy answer as she lets the song wind itself down.
Becoming your own person is certainly liberating and in the end, most people who have come out the other end of the journey would say it is worth it. It’s not for nothing, after all, that rising from the ashes is such an enduring pop trope. Much less glamorous is the hard work of self-sufficiency, most of all the reckoning with what you will lose and have lost along the way.
What feels so valuable about Endless Summer Vacation is the way Cyrus faces that difficulty head-on and reckons with it. Without flinching, she unsparingly recounts the things she misses, but stops short of actual regret. Even in her most emotionally raw moments, she is calculated and deliberate to incredible effect. Many of the songs certainly hold up individually, but taken as a whole, the album is a powerful statement of who Miley Cyrus is at a pivotal moment in her life and career.
Endless Summer Vacation is available to stream and purchase on all major platforms. Visit www.mileycyrus.com.
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