miley-dead-2

To be fair, Miley Cyrus gave us plenty of warning: She can’t be tamed and she won’t stop.

And during last Sunday’s messy 2015 MTV Video Music Awards — somewhere between seeing her stumble to form a quick defense after having her dread-covered head handed to her by Miss Minaj (“Miley, what’s good?” – Psalms 3:21) and watching her flail around in that Illuminati ARTPOP stoner-chic attire while wailing about weed and peace as Laganja Estranja death-dropped to the floor — it became clearer than ever that Miley has no intention of smoothing out the rougher edges of her persona. Instead, she’s gone harder. Compromise is futile.

The truth is that Miley gets it wrong sometimes. She really shouldn’t have tried it by declaring Nicki “unkind” in that interview, suggesting that there was a ‘way’ to talk about race that Nicki got wrong. She got served live on TV accordingly. Her relationship with black culture is still uncomfortable (the “mammy” moment was a major groan), and she’s not doing much to remedy that situation.

But she gets it right sometimes, too: She’s an outspoken gay rights ally (have you watched her incredible amFAR speech?), and her considerable work to promote the Happy Hippie Foundation, her charity organization which works to raise funds and provide visibility for LGBTQ and homeless youth, has led to everything from an Instagram campaign (#instapride) to a backyard singing series with the likes of Joan Jett and Ariana Grande to bringing transgender kids onstage to present at this year’s VMAs. (The fact that she managed to lasso Gigi Gorgeous and Alyssa Edwards into the same segment is nothing short of personal fan-fiction fulfilled, for the record.)

She’s passionate. She’s brash. She’s in some ways culturally tone deaf; in other cases fairly enlightened. Miley is the closest thing this generation has to a certain other divisive, oft-messy-yet-ultimately empowering #unapologeticbitch: Madonna.

And, just like Madge, Miley isn’t afraid to take risks with her career, which is why her decision to drop a free 23-track experimental album immediately after the VMAs barely felt like much of a surprise at all.

Miley Cyrus And Her Dead Petz isn’t an accessible album. It’s not pop at all — not exactly, anyway. The songs sound like unpolished, rough demos. Some of them wander aimlessly around in the speakers, as if purposely avoiding a hook. Others feel like hits-in-the-making, but remain about three mastering sessions away from being ready for Top 40 radio. And the lead single — “Dooo It!”, which she performed live — embodies everything obnoxiously in-your-face about Miley in 2015, like an Instagram of a pair of bright green weed socks in musical form. (We get it — you smoke weed, as the one meme goes.)

But “Dooo It!” is misleading. If you didn’t like it at the VMAs, ignore it: The bulk of Dead Petz is actually quite chill, dreamy and, often, devastating, much in the same way that Bangerz wasn’t actually filled with all that many, um, actual Bangerz.

From heartfelt odes to her dead pets to heartwrenching break-up ballads, there’s a significant amount of pain in this collection — which may very well be why the girl’s so deep in a haze of drugs.

“Karen Don’t Be Sad” and “The Floyd Song (Sunrise)”, the two tear-jerking ballads that immediately follow “Dooo It!”, more accurately set the tone of the record. The latter, especially, is a particularly raw. We all saw how much Floyd’s death repeatedly ruined her on stage, and she’s brought that heartbreak into the studio: “Death take me with you / I don’t want to live without my flower,” she aches.

You might be foolish enough to think a few of these piano-led odes to pets past would be at least a little lighthearted, but then, you must not know Miley: “Pablow the Blowfish” — an ode to Pablow, a blowfish, yes — is every bit as upsetting as her ode to Floyd, as she bursts into tears and barely chokes out the words “I miss you so bad.” You’ll never look at sushi the same.

It’s not all dead pets, though. “BB Talk” is a much-needed dose of levity, as the pop princess bristles at the idea of PDA with her bae, slowly but surely coming around to the idea in an amusing series of spoken interludes: “You know, it’s sweet and you couldn’t be more opposite of my last dickhead / but, you know I just, I don’t know if I can get over the fucking goo.”

To no one’s surprise, the collaborations with Wayne Coyne and The Flaming Lips veer the hardest to the left and results vary greatly, from the utterly bizarre-yet-great, nipple-sucking electro shape-shifter “Milky Milky Milk,” with its hammering, Portishead-like production, to “Cyrus Skies,” an arena-sized drifting epic full of lush strings and massive belting that almost feels a bit Björk-like in places.

Bangerz buddy Mike WiLL Made It makes several appearances throughout as well, including the deliciously horny sex jam “Bang Me Box.” “Adore You” crafter Oren Yoel is here for the party too, whose co-productions supply the nearest thing to actual pop hits, including “1 Sun,” as Miley becomes a self-help coach, encouraging eco-friendliness and the concept of carpe diem in one go: “We only have one sun, one moon, one me, one you / We only have a little time to show how much we love,” she declares across a soldiering dark synth pulse, perhaps evoking a little bit of Violator-era Depeche Mode — and a little bit of Can’t Be Tamed‘s “Liberty Walk.” (The Grace Jones quote is a perfect touch.)

Best of all the Yoel songs is “Space Bootz,” a thoroughly depressing, drug-addled intergalactic break-up anthem. “Since you left, I’ve started to drink / Somehow now when I do drugs, I’ll start to overthink / And I start crying, I think I’m dying, but I’m just tripping, spiraling down this hole,” she sadly coos. It’s a crushingly lonely production — and perhaps more than a little worrying. Just how much of this is space-age storytelling and how much is drawn from reality, anyway?

In fact, this whole album’s filled with references to Miley smoking, drinking and taking drugs as an escape — moreso than Bangerz. At times, it’s hard to believe all of this worldweariness is coming from a 22-year-old. But then, she’s lived more life in her short years than any of us can really comprehend — a much weirder life, wearing pageant flippers and wigs and performing in stadiums across the world as Hannah Montana while the rest of us were still studying for our learner’s permit. Child stars, man. It’s a trip.

She fares somewhat less successfully all on her own, but the effort is appreciated: The self-penned and produced “Twinkle Song” feels like an attempt at navigating into Lady Gaga‘s brand of piano balladry. (Actually, a bulk of this album feels reminiscent to the risk Gaga took with ARTPOP.) The lyrics — filled with dreams of monsters, karate and robbing record shops — could use some serious revisions, but at least it’s obvious who wrote them. “I had a dream that I didn’t give a fuck/But I give a fuck/I miss you so bad, I think I might die,” she laments before yelping at the top of her lungs. “What does it mean? What does it all mean?”

At a hefty 23 tracks, there’s a lot to dig through with Miley Cyrus And Her Dead Petz. Not all of it is particularly worth a repeat listen, which is why it makes perfect sense as a free album.

Miley’s bid to take the reigns as a major pop artist with this anti-label album is a bold, respectable move — a mostly successful one at that, showcasing some legitimate soul-bearing in her songwriting (the name-dropping of dead fish, nipples and laser beams might be childish and embarrassing, but at least the emotions are real) and sonic experimentation beyond her post-Disney pop star confines — real experimentation, as opposed to “Oh, she used a dubstep breakdown!”

More importantly for those who love Miley the Pop Star, this record is undoubtedly the fucks-free creative itch she needed to scratch before going in to making a tight, forward-thinking pop record…which, hopefully, she still wants to do. Because as much as Dead Petz aims to keep it weird, Miley can’t entirely escape her radio-friendly roots: There are gems buried within like the Mike WiLL Made It-assisted “Lighter,” an atmospheric ’80s power pop ballad that plays like an undiscovered Cyndi Lauper classic.

With a little polish, it that could (and should) be included on her upcoming studio album; just one of the many moments of brilliance hidden within the plumes of weed smoke, milky milky milk and goo.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ai2ZMrkzWpg

Listen to Miley Cyrus And Her Dead Petz and see the credits.