“Am I stranded on an island, or have I landed in Paradise?”, Miley Cyrus asks on ‘Island’, the penultimate track of Endless Summer Vacation, laying down the album’s central question. From the second ‘Flowers’ dropped in all its drama-filled glory, we knew this would be Miley’s magnum opus on relationships. But the focal point is far more complex.
In fact, as the album launches with the smash single, ‘Flowers’ feels more like an epilogue. Sitting as a kind of manifesto, we immediately meet Miley where she is right now. As a stand-alone single, ‘Flowers’ recaptured public attention and reminded them, finally, of the pop force Miley has been since her teens. But in terms of subject matter; it’s a refresher course.
Filling us in on where she’s at post- a very public breakup, ‘Flowers’ isn’t the first time she’s put it to paper perfectly. Previous albums Younger Now (2017), Plastic Hearts (2020) and even the off-cuff mixtape She Is Coming (2019) all said their piece; but on ‘Flowers’, 2023 Miley wraps it up and puts it to bed. Out of the way in the first track, Endless Summer Vacation wades into a deeper pool, no longer interested in other people that define her, but solely focussed on the many versions of herself that colour the past, present and future of the artist.
And that pretty much sets the tone for the first half. From the pure pop of ‘Rose Colored Lenses’ to the country-twanged sound of ‘Thousand Miles,’ which would sit perfectly on the Hannah Montana Movie soundtrack, the first half takes us on a tour of all prior Mileys. It’s as though Endless Summer Vacation is a safe space where all her past selves gather; Miley the Disney kid, Miley Ray Cyrus the country star’s child, and Miley Cyrus the rock singer, are all lounging by the pool.
I think it’s the first and last tracks that are the most interesting. There is absolutely no denying this is a pop album, but Miley’s voice deserves to be lorded as one of the finest rock vocals of our time – whether she’s been given the attention she deserves or not. With a unique gruffness that’s never too overpowering and nestles perfectly with a country twang, Miley doesn’t sing these pop songs with a pop voice, giving everything an edge that’s instantly identifiable as hers.
As someone with a clear love for rock, as well as a lengthy education in pop and country – a reminder she’s the goddaughter of Dolly Parton – Endless Summer Vacation shows she’s now more than comfortable playing with these genres. Unlike Plastic Hearts, 2013’s Bangerz or earlier works, she’s not tying herself too close to just one.
Instead, tracks like ‘Jaded’ mix pop production with classic rock lyrics. As she sings “We went to hell but we never came back”, you can hear a whole generation of rock elders kicking themselves they didn’t write it first. On ‘You’, meanwhile, a beat-backing provides the perfect home for a clear display of her rock voice. With energy similar to Lady Gaga’s ‘You + I’, both songs share one clear catharsis in common: a voice finally being used fully with no holding back.
With little-to-no-doubt over Miley’s voice, by the sixth track , ‘Handstand’, we’re met with a track that’s half spoken-word interlude and half electro-pop meltdown. Here, something new emerges: if we’ve previously been interested in the old Miley’s sitting on their sun loungers, we now see current-day Miley Cyrus step out of the water.
She could so easily rest on her laurels. Even on ‘Flowers’, I’d argue that it’s a fool-proof version of Miley that was always going to go down well. But tracks like ‘River’ and ‘Violet Chemistry’ play a little more. Merging Bangerz-era full production but with better lyricism and modern details, this may well be the Miley of the future.
If I had one criticism, it would be that the album doesn’t end after ‘Island’. Feeling like the thread that ties the whole piece together; considering outright where Miley is in her life and whether this new-found independence is a good thing when it was so painfully hard-won.
Instead, album closer ‘Wonder Woman’ feels like a slightly lacklustre addition to an album that deserves a big finish. But overall, Endless Summer Vacation is a truly powerful addition to Miley’s discography; one that could finally bring the attention they deserve to all albums that came before.
The notion that all female pop acts are underappreciated and largely misunderstood is a feature piece for another time. Lady Gaga is brushed-off as nothing but an over-the-top shock act, Taylor Swift a man-obsessed bore, whilst Miley Cyrus is the Disney kid who fell from grace. People still want to see her as Hannah Montana, or the girl twerking on the VMAs stage after the shine from ‘The Climb’ finally wore off.
Miley knows that and seems to know it’s none of her business. People were quick to proclaim that she was “back” after ‘Flowers’ dropped – but in truth she never went anywhere. Miley Cyrus has been a force for years, with a voice that never faltered and a creative vision that stays sharp and ever-changing. Considering all those underestimated pasts, they’re all held close here as Miley makes her best work with all those old selves on board.