By most accounts, it looked like she was going down the drain. The insipid pre-recorded skits. The jokes with flat punch lines. The very uncomfortable and heated exchange onstage with Nicki Minaj. The “accidental” flashing of her breast caught on camera backstage.
A spiral was in motion, with detractors ready to pick her apart.
But then Miley Cyrus turned the tables and rewrote the takeaway from Sunday night’s MTV Video Music Awards, which she hosted live from Los Angeles. As a last hurrah in the ceremony’s final moments, the hell-raising pop star announced she had just released a free new album with no advance warning.
A profanity-laden tweet from Cyrus confirmed the surprise news, and a press release with more details hit inboxes not long after midnight. Suddenly there it was: “Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz,” which cannot be downloaded or purchased in physical form but is now streaming online. (“No further plans beyond that at the moment,” a representative for Cyrus wrote in an e-mail to the Globe.)
“Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz” is the singer’s first album since 2013’s “Bangerz” signaled a sea change, buoyed by the hits “Wrecking Ball” and “We Can’t Stop.” Cyrus used that record to shed the Disney wholesomeness of her Hannah Montana character, replaced by an emboldened young woman kicking in the walls of a box that could never contain her. It was full of attitude and defiance — the only thing missing was, well, uniformly great songs.
Her latest has a surplus of them. It suggests Cyrus, at 22, has figured out how to present her views in a way that’s still powerful but also musically interesting and cohesive. (It’s not unlike the substantial growth Lana Del Rey exhibited between her debut and last year’s “Ultraviolence.”)
Cyrus’s new songs — all 23 of them — are brash on entirely different terms, often drifting into psychedelic sprawl and cosmic rumination. She trades in her shock value for a sense of artistic liberation in her lyrical content and the kaleidoscope of sonic backdrops that give her room to breathe.
The album was the result of a spiritual collaboration with Wayne Coyne and his cohorts in the Flaming Lips, indie rock’s resident weirdos. Cyrus is credited as the sole writer on several songs, but she co-wrote just as many of them with Coyne and Steven Drozd and enlisted a diverse cast of producers and mixers, recorded at various studios. The Lips’ influence is especially pronounced on “Karen Don’t Be Sad,” “The Floyd Song (aka Sunrise),” and “Something About Space Dude,” a trio of intergalactic slow jams that bear the band’s rainy-day melancholy.
Mike WiLL Made-It, the Atlanta producer who helped to shape the sound of “Bangerz,” again works his magic. His gives the songs an unfussy, radio pop sensibility that occasionally approaches whimsy, as heard on “I Forgive Yiew” and “Bang Me Box,” the latter of which twitches with sexual candor and some of Lady Gaga’s swagger.
Meanwhile, Oren Yoel’s production casts Cyrus in a more subdued light, letting her bask in a pastel glow on “I Get So Scared.” On “Space Boots,” the breezy beat is warm and easy, matching the cavalier coolness of her vocals. Other guests flit in and out of the record, including indie-rock auteur Ariel Pink (“Tiger Dreams”), rapper Big Sean (“Tangerine”), and Phantogram singer Sarah Barthel [“Slab of Butter (Scorpion)”].
But make no mistake: This is Cyrus’s vehicle. This is not the tongue-wagging pop tart who’s forever mugging and provoking on social media. These new songs allow her to contort her persona into something unexpected: She’s a confident singer — communicator is a more apt word — determined to conjure a broader spectrum of expression.
Her vocal is bone-dry and direct on the piano ballad “Pablow the Blowfish,” a surreal love letter to a sea creature. “How can I love/ Someone I never touched?/ You lived under the water/ But I love you so much,” she sings, later wondering, “Why does everything I love have to die?” Cyrus audibly chokes up before the song ends in an abrupt pounding of the keys and her own assessment of her performance: “Damn.”
With 23 songs, there’s filler, of course. With its manipulated chipmunk vocals, “I’m So Drunk” blacks out after 46 seconds, and exits your mind altogether in the same amount of time. “BB Talk” doesn’t need to exist beyond Cyrus’s foul-mouthed monologue about an overly affectionate boyfriend. And “Dooo It!,” which she performed on the VMAs with Coyne, is the album’s least interesting moment, dull in sentiment and melody. “Yeah, I smoke pot,” she reveals to the shock of exactly, um, no one.
On a night when Taylor Swift swept the most awards with her cookie-cutter pop and Kanye West even declared he was going to run for president in 2020, Cyrus managed to walk away with the show. And now she’s given us an excuse to keep talking about her for the rest of the year — not about her antics, but rather her merits.