“I never would have believed you if three years ago you told me I would be here with you, writing this song,” Miley Cyrus sings halfway through “Malibu,” her lilting new single. There’s a neat double entendre at work in that line. In a recent Billboard interview, the singer-songwriter explicitly acknowledged that “Malibu” is about her fiance, the actor Liam Hemsworth. Three years ago, it was 2014, and Cyrus and Hemsworth had just broken up. At the time, the idea that she’d be preparing to marry him today, and writing love songs about it, would have been hard to fathom. But also, it would have been unbelievable that she’d be writing this song: not a gonzo Dirty South strip club safari a la her 2013 album Bangerz, nor a salvia-powered trip around the moon like her 2015 followup Dead Petz, but a piece of SoCal soft rock that would slide nicely between Don Henley and Sheryl Crow on your mom’s backyard party playlist. In a short career that’s already filled with left turns and occasionally facile attempts to shock, the most brazen thing about “Malibu” is its utter inoffensiveness.
The best pop stars have always played around with identity and public presentation, and Cyrus is no different. If she seems particularly unwilling to commit to any of her various whims for longer than a single album cycle, chalk it up to the attention span of a kid who grew up in the internet age, and the understandable urge to rebel that must come after a childhood spent in the Disney system. Cyrus’s genre hopping has gotten her into trouble–her drive-by relationship with hip-hop demands some self-examination that she still refuses to do–but it’s also yielded some pretty great songs.
The pitch behind “Malibu” and its as-yet-untitled accompanying album seems to be that this is not just another mask, but the real Miley we’re hearing: earnest lyrics, unfussy production with handclaps and clean electric guitars, a mild twang to remind you of her status as the progeny of a country star. Against all odds, it works pretty well. In the verses, phrases that look sentimental and overlong on paper come out smooth and convincing; even that syllable-stuffed “three years ago” line has an appealing musicality.
Of course, in pop music, and especially in a career like Cyrus’s, everything is performance. Recall that even a straightforward song like “Party in the U.S.A.” contained a prominent shoutout to Jay Z, an artist Miley admitted to never having listened to in interviews at the time. It bears wondering whether “stripped-down country rocker” isn’t just another role for her to inhabit, a la Lady Gaga’s Joanne. For all her chameleonic showmanship, Cyrus puts very little ironic distance between herself and her various public personas; even an apparent provocation like Dead Petz seems like it was borne mostly out of an honest desire to weird out with Wayne Coyne. But in its direct bid for some imagined ideal of authenticity, “Malibu” comes dangerously close to convey the opposite effect. The vocal harmonies, the ridiculous crossfades between her face and a Pacific Ocean sunset in the music video, the studied rejection of her output of the last several years, the admission to Billboard that she hasn’t “smoked weed in three weeks!”: all of it adds up to what feels like Cyrus’s most deliberately constructed persona yet. She says she never would have believed she’d write a song like “Malibu.” The question is whether her fans can believe it.