Miley Cyrus, Shania Twain, and the state of country pop

What their new albums say about the ever-evolving genre.

Miley Cyrus, Shania Twain, and the state of country pop Miley Cyrus and Shania Twain Instagrams

Country-pop — the much-maligned, decades-old genre hybrid that usually pairs throwback storytelling with modern textures — has had something of a renaissance in recent years. It's probably thanks to great new songs by thoughtful singers like Kacey Musgraves and Miranda Lambert, as well as our collective nostalgia for the oversaturated sentiment of turn-of-the-century radio hits. Here, we consider two recent additions to the contemporary landscape (with weirdly similar titles): Now, the new full-length by country-pop legend Shania Twain, and Younger Now, by the Tennessee-born Miley Cyrus.



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MYLES: Shania Twain might have been away for a while, but her influence in 2017 has never been more pronounced. Acts that bob and weave out of country territory, like Kesha, Maren Morris, Sam Hunt, and, of course, Miley Cyrus, owe more to Shania’s fusion stylings than anyone else. And on her recently released album, Now — her first full-length in 15 years — she continues to blend everything together masterfully: lots of soulful ballads rooted in the southern tradition, supplemented by radio-friendly tunes suitable for any station across the 50 states.

Shania has always given her fans a lot — 2002’s Up! had three completely different versions you could choose from — and some things never change. Clocking in at 16 tracks, there’s a lot to digest on Now, but, happily, she takes risks on almost every track. On the album’s opener “Swingin’ With My Eyes Closed,” Shania eases listeners in with chill verses and then whips them into a chorus where her voice is prismatic as hell. It’s a move that a lesser artist would totally fumble. On the sweet “We Got Something They Don’t,” there’s the traditional boot stomping beat we’ve heard from Shania before, but there’s also some amazing trombone parts that make it feel brand new. And on “Where Do You Think You’re Going,” Shania’s voice has a brassy, Broadway sort of tone that she’s never used before.

Smack in the middle of the album is the bubbly “Let’s Kiss and Make Up.” It’s a teaspoon of Kygo-ish tropical house with familiar elements: the horns sound like they’re lifted from Omi’s 2015 smash “Cheerleader” and the little lighter flick before the chorus hits could be from any Lil Wayne song from the last 15 years. Shania’s voice sounds richer than ever before, but thanks to a little funky auto-tune and acoustic guitar plucking, it still sounds like she can throw down at a Texas beach party. It’s a killer pop song, the kind of genre-bending music that has helped the country icon sell over 100 million records over the course of her career.

She’s said in interviews during this album cycle that her 16-year-old son helped inspire some of these new songs. But the most compelling look into Shania’s pop cultural references can be gleaned from Us Weekly’s often-cheesy feature 25 Things You Don’t Know About Me. In the piece from Tuesday, Shania reveals that she wears OFF-WHITE and Yeezys and listens to “quite a bit of” EDM and rap. Her “dream collaboration” right now is English pop crooner Rag’n’Bone Man. She also says her favorite place to listen to that music is inside her horse barn and says she wants to see women artists band together: “Country music has a particularly low ratio of female artists. Let’s go, girls!” She might have updated her musical influences, but that sass is vintage Shania.

PATRICK: Parts of Younger Now, the sixth album by the polarizing singer — and Shania Twain descendent — Miley Cyrus, sound really nice in headphones. On the title track opener, for example, a field recording of a rainstorm is mixed with a simple acoustic guitar riff. Even before she starts singing, this earthy production is meant to signal some sort of catharsis. With the rain, it seems to say, comes a fresh start. The very literal lyrics that follow keep the theme going. “Feels like I just woke up,” Miley sings, her famously husky voice carefully treated with echo and reverb by the record’s sole producer, Oren Yoel. “Feels like I’ve been living in a dream.”

That voice — which has, over the years, proven well-suited for Bob Dylan standards, Crowded House karaoke, and chart-topping tearjerkers — is Miley’s true gift. This is a fact that her most devoted fans and harshest critics usually agree on: Miley Cyrus can sing. And she really does sound good on this new record’s 11 songs, especially the more ballad-like ones, where she goes full-on country, like “Miss You so Much,” a big-hearted highlight about the sort of wild love that totally consumes you: “How can I miss you so much when you’re right here?” And then there’s “Week Without You,” a burst of big-room folk that’s equal parts Blue Hawaii Elvis and Edward Sharpe.

It sure seems like Miley poured her heart and soul into this project — she wrote every single song, after all. Unfortunately, they sometimes come off a bit generic, both structurally and thematically. The personal poetry that made it onto the finished record — lots of rainbows and clouds and sailboats — somehow doesn’t end up feeling all that personal. The lyrics range from pleasant to generic, and the instrumentation actually feels weakest when it tries to straddle both pop and country. It’s an upgrade from the half-baked bong-rock that dominated 2015’s Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz, for sure, but some parts still sound a bit undercooked (or, in case of disco-tinged “Thinkin,’” downright annoying).

I can’t help but wonder what would have happened had Miley collaborated with someone like, I don’t know — Katie Crutchfield, a.k.a. Waxahatchee, a.k.a. an Alabama-born songwriter with an affinity for translating heartache and world-weariness into very affecting, twangy melodic rock. Could Crutchfield have helped Miley reign in her big ideas into straight-up country songs that are as full of genuine-feeling emotion as her voice is? Truthfully, I think Miley could have stood to take a couple more pages out of Shania Twain’s schmaltz-filled late-’90s scrapbook, too; lead single “Malibu” almost reminds me of the stone-cold Shania classic “Forever And For Always.” Almost.

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Miley Cyrus, Shania Twain, and the state of country pop