I wasn’t a huge fan of ‘Flowers’ when it first came out. Musically, it seemed to signal a shift from the broad new wave/classic rock revivalism of 2020’s Plastic Hearts to something more distinctly disco-indebted, a stylistic pivot that would make sense but wasn’t particularly exciting. Emotionally, the song cycles through heartbreak with such familiar ease that it seems disinterested in selling its own message of self-care. On repeated listens, and as the single became an inescapable hit, this unmarred composure felt like part of the point: if there’s any kind of acceptance here, it’s growingly wearied and distant, a tentative step in the journey of self-discovery rather than a point of arrival. On streaming services, Endless Summer Vacation is bookended by a demo (or rather “demoified”) version of the track, which does a much better job of evoking the very real and lonely sense of regret that simmers at the heart of the song. It’s a fitting conclusion that also sounds just like the start.
All this to say that, refreshingly, you can talk about Endless Summer Vacation as more than a disco-inspired or breakup album. It’s about more than which persona Cyrus has decided to embrace at this particular stage in her career. That doesn’t mean it’s not overall messy or underwhelming in execution, but its conflicted yet generally relaxed mood makes for an intriguing listen, showing a willingness to mess with the nuances of big emotions rather than merely their presentation. Cyrus has said that Endless Summer Vacation is vaguely divided into two parts, ‘AM’ and ‘PM’, but they don’t form a neat or cohesive narrative. Across both sides, there’s more of a split between songs that lean toward the bruised, breezy melancholy of ‘Flowers’ and those more closely aligned with its quiet rendition, earnest and direct in their yearning. There are hits and misses on both ends of the spectrum, though the album’s shakiness has less to do with Cyrus’ presence than whether the music is able to match it.
For the most part, the endless part of Endless Summer Vacation feels ironic, or at least a false promise. But for a brief moment on ‘Rose Colored Lenses’, Cyrus relishes the possibilities: “Let’s stay like this forever,” she offers, caught under the daze of production (courtesy of Harry Styles collaborators Kid Harpoon and Tyler Johnson) that’s inviting if not entirely convincing, before it naturally dissipates. ‘You’, a more straightforward R&B ballad, puts the singer’s personality front and center as she craves “That late-night sweet magic, that forever-lasting love” – perhaps a different kind of forever. By the time we reach ‘Violet Chemistry’, a synth-infused track with an assist from James Blake, Cyrus brings togeher those different shades of desire, admitting that this connection “may not be eternal but nocturnal, nothin’ more” while colourfully stretching out the song. There’s a rather rich interplay between feeling and sound, but elsewhere, the meeting of ideas feels incongruous. Songs like ‘Thousand Miles’ or ‘Handstand’ come across as lackluster and directionless, either sticking too closely to the script, or, in the case of ‘Handstand’ (a Harmony Korine co-write), veering so far out of bounds that it becomes a bewildering centerpiece.
The second side offers more stylistic variation, but the results are once again mixed. There’s something funny about the fact that a song called ‘Wildcard’ is followed by one of the tamest and most laidback songs on the album, ‘Island’, in which Cyrus asks, “Am I stranded on an island/ Or have I landed in paradise?” Like ‘Flowers’, both of these songs have a weird way of undercutting their own weight, but they at least feel like they belong on the same album. Second single ‘River’ should have been the first: a fierce, sultry banger that actually delivers the sort of maximalism much of Endless Summer Vacation has been hinting at, while the closing piano ballad ‘Wonder Woman’ benefits from its universal simplicity and a striking vocal performance (“She makes sure that no one’s ’round to see her fall apart/ She wants to be the one that never does,” she sings, her delivery subtly landing closer to the existential dies). Cyrus proves these different sides can peacefully co-exist; it’s just a shame she rarely commits to any particular direction, coasting on a strange middle ground that sounds like fun until you’re desperate to move on and get back to work.