The Liberation of Miley Cyrus’ “Endless Summer Vacation”

Miley Cyrus released her eighth studio album, Endless Summer Vacation, last Friday, March 10 via Columbia Records. It’s a pop music wheel of fortune that encompasses healing from past relationships, and celebrates doing right by yourself and enjoying again all that life has to offer. Like the metaphor suggests, the album has occasional setbacks among its many moments of excitement and payoffs. Conceived as a “love letter to L.A.,” it celebrates the hedonistic tendency to indulge in pleasures both material and intangible. 

Endless Summer Vacation is led by the sleek, disco-inflected break-up anthem “Flowers,” which has broken streaming records to become the fastest song in history to hit 500 million streams on Spotify, and has spent over six weeks in the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. Leading with this track puts the album’s best foot forward and sets the tone for the remainder. It was recorded mostly in Los Angeles, and produced with Mike WiLL Made-It (Beyoncé, Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar), and Grammy-winning producers Greg Kurstin (Adele, Beck), Kid Harpoon, and Tyler Johnson (both for producing Harry’s House, Album of the Year at the 65th GRAMMY Awards.)

With six #1 albums and five sold-out world tours, it’s proven that Cyrus has had success throughout her career in captivating audiences musically. Her discography reads as an encyclopedia of pop styles and subgenres, and seems to tap into the zeitgeist at the right times, when whichever particular style she adopts attains new or resurgent acclaim in the mainstream pop landscape: the reemergence of hip-hop and trap-inspired beats around 2013’s Bangerz; the experimental, new-age, indie-leaning wave buoying Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz (2015); country and folk-lite finding renewed fervor amid the release of Younger Now (2017); and the punk re-revival that allowed the driving, emo glam rock of Plastic Hearts to shine (2020). 

Miley has referred to the album as having a duality where “there’s a slinky seediness… but a glamor at the same time,” and it’s not the only type of duality that exists here. The husk and growl and twang of her voice give something unique, but there’s a sometimes jarring disconnect between those rougher elements and the leisurely shades of power-, disco-, and electro-pop that this album deals in. Within the clear thematic throughline of sunny, hazy production, occasionally it sounds like Cyrus is covering someone else’s songs. What Endless Summer Vacation may lack in originality is made up for in the earnestness of Cyrus’ desire to find her “niche” in the music industry; all this time she’s been trying different things on and seeing what fits best. 

The central duality takes this dissonance, this disconnect, and repurposes it to often work well in support of the music. “Jaded” stacks a mournful retrospect and power ballad styling against gritty vocals; and “Handstand” commits strange, ethereal narration to an electro-pop landscape (that almost sounds like it could be an old Purity Ring demo). Other standouts include the raspy, sneering “Muddy Feet” bringing the Devil-may-care attitude that characterizes many a Miley Cyrus song; “Thousand Miles” for its nostalgic recall to early 2000s soft rock, and the Brandi Carlile-backed harmonies (her incredible talent could have been put to better use here); and “Rose Colored Lenses” for its utopian outlook on an ideal relationship anchored by a fat, languid bassline. This is a love song to fulfillment, and contains a line with the album’s title, further solidifying its overall themes. 

The production lends itself overwhelmingly to a disco-lite pop sensibility that works slightly better when it’s accompanied by wistful regret and nostalgia than when it inundates us with thinly-veiled euphemisms and heavy-handed scenes of slick ecstasy. “River” and “Violet Chemistry” have this heavy-handedness. They both take the pop foundation in a dance direction, but the result is a detached sensation, like finally getting inside the foggy, strobing haziness of a packed nightclub just for them to announce last call seconds after you arrive. 

Endless Summer Vacation is primarily about enjoying the growth you’ve been putting in both inside and outside of interpersonal relationships, but also about recognizing when a situation is headed south and starting to protect your peace before it hits the fan. It’s finding strength in focusing on your well-being, and in creating safe spaces for yourself. “Island” exemplifies these themes, finding inspiration in the two opposing forces of creating those spaces versus isolating yourself within those spaces. This song takes the time to be reflective more than any other on this album. It even ends with the sound of waves gently lapping, like the first few moments of a meditation exercise. Simple and uncomplicated in lyrics and production, it’s easy to imagine Endless Summer Vacation played on a loop this spring and summer, drifting out of car windows or rippling placidly down the shores.

Miley hosted a release party on March 9 at Gucci Osteria in Beverly Hills, the evening before the album officially dropped. A new iteration of her music performance series, The Backyard Sessions, in support of Endless Summer Vacation, also premiered on Disney+ over the weekend. It contains a setlist of 8 songs, the majority of them new, including the first performance of “Flowers” and a performance with Rufus Wainwright, alongside exclusive interviews from Miley. You can purchase the album here: it includes several vinyl options, box sets that include merch, and digital copies. Stream and save the album from several platforms here.

Watch Miley Cyrus — Endless Summer Vacation (Backyard Sessions)

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