The juggernaut brand that has become “Miley Cyrus” conjures up different feelings for different people: for some, it is her wholesome child-star acting days on Disney Channel’s “Hannah Montana” (2006-2011), and for others it is her decisive tonal and aesthetic shift in her polarizing “Bangerz” (2013) era, or even her fearless rock revivalism on her most recent album “Plastic Hearts” (2020). She has steadily laid the blueprint for branching out of the confines of her childhood stardom, pursuing her own unabashed musical and stylistic interests, all with relative grace and commercial success. The Nashville-born singer-songwriter has repeatedly proved that only one thing stays consistent between her releases: nothing is the same.
Cyrus’ “Endless Summer Vacation” was released internationally on March 10 via Columbia Records. Hype for her eighth studio album has continued to grow since the release of the blockbuster lead single “Flowers” in January, a song that has fondly been compared to Bruno Mars’ power ballad “When I Was Your Man” (2012) as well as to Gloria Gaynor’s eternal disco-rock anthem “I Will Survive” (1978). The elegant divorce bop balanced self-empowerment lyrics over an undeniably groovy disco beat, deservedly earning the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for its sixth consecutive week. The song has also been the subject of related tabloid fodder regarding her turbulent marital status, adding to its popularity.
In a social media video posted before the album’s release, Cyrus explained how the album was heavily inspired by the mood of Los Angeles during the day and its descent into the night. Fittingly, she divided the album into an “a.m.” and “p.m.” section, with the former representing a sense of optimism and limitless possibilities and the latter conjuring up feelings of “grime” and “glamor.” The track “Handstand” bravely connects the two starkly different auras and splits the album in half. Promotional videos foreshadowed the mood of the album with shaky handheld camcorder videography and saturated VHS tapes depicting sultry late summer nights.
Within this context, the album cover makes more sense: Cyrus, who hangs confidently from a trapeze seemingly suspended out of thin air, performs an impressive musical feat on this decisive record, balancing the contrasting beachy haziness of the “a.m.” section with the grimy disco-pop found on the “p.m.” side. While at times thematically jumbled, the record comes out relatively unscathed, albeit not without some minor hiccups along the way.
The “a.m.” section opens with the familiar “Flowers” and continues its upbeat and occasionally wistful sentiment through the album’s first half. The powerful yet laidback “Jaded” and subsequent “Rose Colored Lenses” tackle themes of relationship regret, wistful nostalgia and listless summer nights, all imbued with a psychedelic flair renewed in Cyrus’ eclectic discography. The songs flow incredibly well and set the dreamy tone for the introductory side of this album.
“You” finds Cyrus belting over a sappy piano ballad waltz about her infatuation with an unnamed lover. The sugary track feels like a last call at a bar or a last hurrah of sorts, especially during the triumphant key change that hits the listener toward the end of the song.
“I got some baggage, let’s do some damage,” she confidently belts over the track’s classic sing-songy chorus. “I am not made for no horsey and carriage.”
Track six, “Handstand,” ushers in the “p.m.” phase and exemplifies an abrupt shift from the pleasantly mellow feel of the album’s first half. Starting with a spoken free word section, it suddenly veers into a hazy psychedelic breakdown section anchored by percolating synthesizers and a thumping electric bassline. It is abundantly clear that we are moving into the “p.m.” side now.
Cyrus then channels her inner pop diva on the techno-inspired “River,” a song more fit for an underground rave than a day spent sunbathing. The sun has now set in Los Angeles and the party has moved inside, or maybe even underground.
Cyrus partners with pop star Sia on “Muddy Feet,” an imperial call to arms against an unfaithful partner. The track invokes biting imagery and a sense of unbridled rage, especially on the blazing chorus. The earworm verses and staccato piano stabs on the track make it seem preordained to be a TikTok audio in the coming weeks.
While the album stalls at times during the second half — particularly on the languid “Wildcard” and “Island” — the penultimate “Wonder Woman,” another powerful piano ballad, compellingly revitalizes the listener’s imagination and heart. Cyrus wrote the song as an ode to her deceased grandmother as well as her commitment to generational strength. The track is part of an extensive lineage of powerful ballads Cyrus has delivered throughout her storied career, carrying the torch from her country-pop heyday of “The Climb” (2009) through the seismic track “Wrecking Ball” (2013).
From acid bass to ’70s-tinged yacht rock, Cyrus has decisively leaped into the unknown and is taking fans both new and old on this journey alongside her. On “Endless Summer Vacation,” Cyrus connects parallel music genres into a compelling artistic whole, arguably the first time she has been able to do so with such finesse in her entire genre-bending career.
As a result, the uncontested soundtrack for the summer has already been released months before the season even begins. Watch Cyrus balance on the trapeze in her “Endless Summer Vacation.”
Ari Segal (he/him) (25C) is from Boca Raton, Florida, majoring in philosophy, politics and law and minoring in music. He is the Arts and Entertainment editor at the Wheel. He is involved with the Emory Conversation Project, Franklin Fellows and the SPARK Mentorship Program. If you run into Ari, he is probably talking about music, listening to music or playing music on the guitar.