Rock and roll has been mourned as “dead” or “irrelevant” for decades now, but there’s an unmistakable revival going on lately in popular culture. The quavering vocal inflections of punk and the dissonance of industrial metal are common in the rap and new electronic-pop styles surging on TikTok. To be sure, this does not mean that there’s currently a viable rock band anywhere in the upper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100. Rock now often works as an aesthetic talisman, opening portals to sensibilities and values that are out of fashion. When Harry Styles grabs for ’60s hippy sounds, he’s trying to access a bleary-eyed, openheartedness verging on naïveté. Lana Del Rey’s vintage pastiches pine for a kind of serene, fatalistic surrender that in other contexts might be called toxic.
Cyrus’s Plastic Hearts also treats rock as a tomb to be raided rather than an ecosystem to inhabit, but it’s to jolt Cyrus, and the listener, into fresh liveliness and clarity. The first way to talk about an album like this is by listing reference points, which Cyrus makes easy by collaborating with Joan Jett, Billy Idol, and Stevie Nicks—and by including covers of songs by Blondie and the Cranberries on the deluxe edition. Throughout the album, there are scuzzy bass lines reminiscent of the Stooges. There are dorky synths like you’d hear in a Don Henley song. The extraordinary “Hate Me” has a melody that recalls the Strokes and several compositional ideas from the Beatles. A few tracks combine buzzsaw guitars with disco beats in the manner of Nine Inch Nails. The music video for “Prisoner” is pure Mötley Crüe, though the song itself is more inspired by Olivia Newton-John’s aerobics anthem “(Let’s Get) Physical.”
Those comparison points may appear scattershot, but what Cyrus wants to conjure is made clear by the CBGB-evoking album cover shot by the legendary photographer Mick Rock. Cyrus is hung up on the late-’70s and early-’80s period during which punk and metal were finding a place on FM radio. She’s gravitating toward the coke-fueled, pissed-off, self-gratifying sounds that accompanied post-Watergate disillusionment, nightlife excess, and record-high divorce rates. It’s not all throwback: Present-day studio gurus such as Mark Ronson, Louis Bell, and Andrew Watt provide muscular, glossy production for ecstatic headphone listening. But Cyrus is definitely presenting herself as a historical caricature who’s slithering through carpeted nightclubs for a fleeting high. “Love you now, but not tomorrow,” she sings on the title track, a rhythmically and harmonically rich takedown of the L.A. social circuit. “Wrong to steal, but not to borrow.”
She’d be working in the realm of pure cliché if her growl and her point of view weren’t distinctive. Plastic Hearts is an angry breakup record, but the anger isn’t quite directed at a bad lover (though the “Prisoner” video does close with a graphic saying, “In Loving Memory of All My Exes. Eat Shit.”). Rather, she’s livid at deeply internalized social expectations. The thrashing opener, “WTF Do I Know,” captures her tussling with the fact that she doesn’t even miss the former beau whom she once thought she’d be with for life, and the confusion in her voice is convincing. There are hints in the lyrics about the flaws of her ex, but really the focus of the song is internal: “I couldn’t be somebody’s hero.” By the time of “Angels Like You,” the mood is much sweeter—it’s one of her most effective ballads—but the gist is the same: She’s not able to reciprocate affection.