Inspired by Paul Nelson’s excellent 1972 Rolling Stone review of Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume II. Go read that first.
As with everything else in life, there are multiple ways to look at Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, the sprawling, freewheeling, self-released album that dropped a week ago with no pre-announcement whatsoever.
Dead Petz has divided music critics both professional and amateur, with some offering their highest raves and others their most stinging dismissals.
How to sum the record up from one (fat boring middle-aged) writer’s perspective? Well, some sympathetic critical schizophrenia — pro and con — seems to be called for:
Opinion 1: So here we have an album longer than Elvis Presley’s entire Sun Records output. Where to start with it?
Opinion 2: Maybe by not comparing it to anybody else?
O 1: Point taken — though the specter of Elvis reminds us that young rebels who lead with their crotches are nothing particularly new. Anyway, with Wayne Coyne playing Sam Phillips to Miley’s Elvis, we get 92 minutes and six seconds of profane, openly druggy, homemade electronic psychedelia. And I should be excited … because?
O 2: Maybe you shouldn’t be. But other people are, because Dead Petz is the work of an artist with star charisma who refuses to walk the well-trodden path. She breaks ground by putting out her own music her own way — and she sings better than a lot of people who haven’t been listening give her credit for.
O 1: I concede the point about her pipes. And I suppose putting out her own music her own way is something uncommon. It would help if the music were better, though.
O 2: How so?
O 1: Take the album’s first song, “Dooo It!,” a throbbing, headachy plea for peace. In its effort to be both raw-and-real and idealistic, it succeeds at neither, and ends up collapsing under a stream of distorted, meaningless cries of “Peace, mo’fucker.”
The shallow affirmations of “Dooo It!” remind me of the collage on the inside of Paul Kantner’s Blows Against the Empire, where the handwritten slogan says, “GO TO THE FOREST AND MOVE!,” and you look at it and think, “What does that even mean? Did they really think that signified revolution? Did anyone perceive any kind of substance behind the sloganeering? And are there lots of gray-haired dipshit hippies still lost in the forest?”
O 2: First of all, you’re lost in a forest. Second, I can’t believe you would drag Paul Kantner into this. That album sucked, and anyway everybody in the Starplane family was hugely overrated except maybe Papa John Creach, a cheerful old R&B gnome with the brass to put a song called “Time Out For Sex” on one of his solo albums. Yeah, Miley and Papa John might have hit it off nicely.
O 1: I dunno … the more I think about Blows, the more it seems like a companion piece to Dead Petz. Statements of independence, delivered with the help of celebrity buddies, and derailed by druggy mushheadedness and instrumental sameness. Or, you know what else it reminds me of?
O 2: I can’t wait to hear.
O 1: George Harrison’s Electronic Sound. Back in ’68, the quiet Beatle bought himself a Moog synthesizer and formed himself a record company. Inevitably the two collided, and the result was forty-four minutes of aimless swizzling noises. I’m sure there were people around back then to testify about Hari’s unique independent vision, too.
O 2: Oh, come on. Dead Petz has none of the pretentiousness of something like that. There’s no air of, “These farting noises were created by a Beatle, so they must be fine art.” And you don’t have to pay for Dead Petz — at least not yet — so if Miley’s personal ramblings are not to your taste, there’s no great loss to you.
O 1: Dead Petz, unlike most other albums, raises some interesting questions about who its artist really is. If this rambling mishmash is really where Cyrus’s head and heart lie, that means she only does the polished, produced major-label stuff for the money —
O 2: — which is the only reason you do your job, I might point out —
O 1: — and if her head and heart are really in the polished “real” releases, then this is one titanic jerk-around.
O 2: Can’t she invest herself fully in both worlds? Can’t they both be the real Miley Cyrus? When — let’s see — Neil Young jumps from raging electric to quiet acoustic, you don’t seem to have a problem buying that … and God knows he’s gone the druggy homemade route a whole bunch of times.
O 1: Maybe I’m being both ageist and sexist, but I have trouble buying it in Miley’s case. I’m gonna need a little more than what I’ve seen and heard so far to be convinced that she has that many different personal and musical facets. Oh, and if Neil’s gonna be your poster boy for eclecticism, two words for ya: Everybody’s Rockin’. (Or, maybe, three words: The Monsanto Years.)
O 2: If memory serves, the last time you went to a record store, you left with a copy of Christ at the Mount of Olives. What makes you think you’re in the same ZIP code as the target audience for Dead Petz?
O 1: Sure, I bought Christ at the Mount of Olives. I bought Peaches and Herb, too, so I like a half-decent hook and a good beat. I could have used with a few more of both on Dead Petz, and a couple fewer songs built mainly on atmospherics.
O 2: That’s a common complaint, and I see where you’re coming from. Some of the spacey stuff, like “Miley Tibetan Bowlzzz,” is more pleasant than you’d think, but on the whole it can get a little old. I can only assume she saves the more commercial, broadly catchy stuff for her “official” albums. Gotta make the record company happy, you know.
O 1: But I thought she didn’t give a fuck about anything. She said so herself. A whole bunch of times. Starting about 15 seconds into the album. I think she says it when she gargles her mouthwash in the morning, just to keep in practice.
O 2: You’re just angry about that line in “Twinkle Song” about robbing the record store (“we stole every GOD-DAMN RECORD THEY HAD.”) That’s actually a pretty brilliant line: It’s guaranteed to offend people who cherish record shops, and at the same time it sympathizes with them, because who hasn’t dreamed about walking out of a record store with every god-damn record they have? See, she can write, too.
O 1: OK. When she wants to, yes, she can. Perhaps someday she will write songs a little better-formed than this. And maybe they won’t be about drugs or sex, two topics she is fast wearing threadbare in music and in person.
O 2: The drugs I can live without, and hopefully so can she, sometime soon. As for female sexuality, that copy of Led Zeppelin II on your shelf has clearly been spun plenty of times. If you can put up with “The Lemon Song,” why not Miley’s “Bang Me Box”?
O 1: For one thing, “Bang Me Box” (Lucille Bogan would be proud of you, Miley) is probably better than “The Lemon Song,” or at least it would be if I didn’t prefer guitars to synths. And as for women doin’ it and singin’ about it: That ain’t new, dude. I grew up seeing pretty much the exact same thing — or the 1985 version of it, anyway. It left me cold then too.
O 2: OK, I’ll give 12-Year-Old You a pass for not being able to grok the notion of unashamed sexual liberation for women. What’s 42-Year-Old You’s excuse?
O 1: (crickets)
O 2: I think I’m on to something here. Name me a song about female sexuality that impressed you. Any one.
O 1: (thinks) Patti Smith, “Gloria.” One of the few songs by anyone ever that makes me forget to breathe. There are no six minutes on Dead Petz — hell, no two minutes — to compare.
O 2: Oh, God. Still kneeling before Saint Patti? You need to break free from your Seventies icons. That song will be 40 years old this fall. Almost as old as you are.
O 1: Say whatever you like. People will still grasp the primal drive of “Gloria” when Miley Cyrus is busy not giving a fuck about her Social Security check. Speaking of which, how do you think Dead Petz will be judged for posterity?
O 2: Not at all, maybe. And who cares? Dead Petz isn’t even available for download. It’s just a Soundcloud upload, and it could go away any time its creators think it has served its purpose. Maybe people need to start rethinking what “posterity” means. Maybe music is disposable now. Maybe we’re entering a Snapchat era of musical stardom, where stars are constantly putting out material that appears and disappears, and a discography is a moving target. Can you get your head around that?
O 1: Yes, actually. Did I ever tell you how I got into Funkadelic?
O 2: Not sure what that has to do with this, but go ahead.
O 1: The assistant track coach my sophomore year of high school — black dude from the city somewhere — lent us his copies of three or four P-Funk albums because they were out of print and impossible to find. I’ve forgotten the dude’s name, but not his gift.
Before the age of digital releases, there were all kinds of records you might never luck into — or might never be able to afford if you did. Big-time professional reviewers might tell you Captain Beefheart was a genius, but good luck finding a copy of Lick My Decals Off Baby to confirm it. Same deal with some out-jazz record that sold 10,000 copies when it first came out. A discography was a moving target, and you assembled what you could and trusted somebody else’s word for the rest.
O 2: OK, point taken, sorta. But, you know, you still haven’t explained why a guy who drops references to Lick My Decals Off Baby — indeed, who hasn’t dropped a reference to anything released since the Reagan Administration — should care about Miley Cyrus in the first place.
O 1: Because I don’t want to give in and close myself off and just listen to the Sounds of the Seventies. Because the rebels of the world, however stupid they sound a lot of the time, sometimes grasp a spark that’s worth celebrating. Because — for all the attitude and nonsense that surrounds her — I’m willing to believe other people’s contention that Miley Cyrus is somehow a performer who matters.
O 2: (mocking singsong) There’s somethin’ happenin’ here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?
O 1: All right, I’m leaving.
O 2: Here’s your throat back. Thanks for the loan.