“I’m on an island, dirty dancing in the sun,” sings Miley Cyrus on Endless Summer Vacation. The line perfectly serves up the mood of a sensual but solitary eighth album over an unexpectedly slow, controlled sizzle.
Released back in January, the only advance single — “Flower” — was a poppy, post-break-up anthem. It saw the 30-year-old former child star walk away from her wedding to Liam Hemsworth, confidently declaring: “I can love you better.” It sounded like Cyrus was sticking to the banging groove established on 2020’s rock-indebted Plastic Hearts.
But anyone keeping an eye on Kid Harpoon, the track’s producer, can get a glimpse of what’s to come. English producer slash songwriter Thomas Hull (in Kent, 1982) won a Grammy (for Album of the Year) and a Brit (for Songwriter of the Year) for his work on Harry Styles’ 2022 album Harry’s House.
You can follow the vapor trail of that record’s heat-hazy synths, lingering hooks, and sensual, “watermelon”-y wordplay in this new (largely Harpoon-produced) work from Cyrus. Her shimmery backdrops are perfect for her, like the sandy beaches that accentuate her powerful vocals.
True to his country roots, Cyrus has always been able to tell a good lyrical story. “You can say I’m twerking, pot-smoking,” she said in a recent interview, “but I’m not a liar.” On this record, you believe her every word as she draws listeners deep into the tales of a woman reclaiming single life.
You can imagine her therapist telling her out loud to “sit down” with her feelings. There’s a cool sense of control to the way she does it. Cyrus is no longer a wrecking ball, it seems like a woman doing the emotional lifting.
You can hear it on “Islands” where she balances the joy of being alone (“I don’t want nobody and that’s great”) with her loneliness (“Because boy, I’m missing you”). ). Against a lightly tropical beat, the chorus asks: “Am I stranded on an island / Or have I landed in heaven?”
After the introductory fanfare of “Flowers,” she slows things down with “Zed” (produced by Greg Kurstin), on which she gives us the skinny on Hemsworth. He’s disappearing from bars until “the blur”, worrying in the dark. The melody is a bit dull, but its roaring narrative pulls you in.
“Rose-tinted Lenses” is a constantly throbbing warning against indifference to a lover that “could make a mess of a good hotel”. Brandi Carlile pops in to add her voice to the backing vocals on the melodic “Thousand Miles”.
Musically, ‘Endless Summer Vacation’ is one of Cyrus’ more subdued efforts, but it’s also full of surprises that recall her past era. “Rose Colored Lenses,” one of six songs written by Cyrus with Harry Styles’ producers Kid Harpoon and Tyler Johnson, climaxes in a psychedelic vortex that sounds like something off “Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz,” an experimental 2015 album… With The Flaming Lips.
Infectious second single ‘River’, which Cyrus describes as a “dancefloor banger” with “nasty” lyrics, sounds like a relative of her Stevie Nicks-inspired hit ‘Midnight Sky’. And, in a way, ‘Violet Chemistry’ is a cooler, more wistful update of the bouncy electro-pop sound Cyrus mined on her 2010 album ‘Can’t Be Tamed.
Cyrus has called ‘Endless Summer Vacation’ her “love letter” to LA, the city she moved to as a teenager when she landed her career-launching role in the Disney Channel series Hannah Montana.
She has also said that the album is divided into parts: an ‘am’ opening part “represents the morning time, where there’s a buzz and an energy and … the possibility of new possibilities”, followed by a ‘PM’ closing section is “slinky seediness and a scum but a glamor at the same time”.
The split is not super-accentuated, but with the exception of ‘Flowers’, the album’s second half contains its most obvious hits. Cyrus is a seasoned genre-hopper, but the lovely, reggae-flecked ‘Islands’ sounds like something new for Cyrus.
Generally, the opening stretch finds Cyrus in the more familiar musical territory. ‘Thousand Miles’ is a country-themed collaboration with Brandi Carlile; ‘U’ allows her to show off her powerful throat vocals, and ‘Zed’ contains echoes of ’90s alt-rock anthems like The Cranberries ‘Zombie,’ a song Cyrus has covered in the past.
The album’s major curveball falls right in the middle: ‘Handstand’, a psychedelic fever dream co-written, somewhat haphazardly, by offbeat American film director Harmony Korine. The song’s trippy production and cryptic lyrics – “It’s like you saw a unicorn, you don’t understand / How I do what I do in a fucking handstand” – sound like another nod to the ‘Dead Petz’ era. Feel it.
It all adds up to an album that holds your full attention, even if it’s not Cyrus’ boldest or most visionary. “Endless Summer Vacation” definitely feels like an accurate reflection of who I am as an artist — and a person — in 2023. She’s still working out what she wants out of a relationship. She knows she can pull off a variety of musical styles even when she’s not trying to make a banger (or ‘bangerz’). And when she sings “But don’t forget, baby I’m a wildcard” in the third-to-last song, you’ll definitely believe her.