There’s always been something contentious about the borders of country music, borders that Shania Twain and Miley Cyrus have spent their very different careers exploring. In the Nineties “is this country or is it disco” culture wars, Shania scandalized Nashville propriety with her glam-rock flash and mirror-ball glitz, just a few years after Miley’s dad Billy Ray Cyrus came out of nowhere with the ass-wiggling dance-craze blockbuster “Achy Breaky Heart.” Miley, of course, grew up playing Hannah Montana on the Disney Channel before turning into America’s favorite sex-drugs-and-twerking shock-pop diva. But Miley and Shania have both served as noble pioneers, opening old-school country up to alien sounds – though on their new records, both of them aim to get back to their roots, however un-rootsy these roots might be.
The New Improved Miley of 2017 is as far from “We Can’t Stop” and Bangerz as that Miley was from “See You Again” and Hannah Montana. Her last album – just two years ago – was a psychedelic rock opera about her dead pets (R.I.P., Pablow the Blowfish) with a genuinely touching galactic-sex ballad, “Something About Space Dude,” one of the last great songs written about David Bowie in his lifetime. But the Dead Petz-era Miley now sleeps with the blowfishes. Her new Younger Now is the debut of yet another Miley, playing down her whimsical and outrageous quirks for a sincerity-intensive move into the country-pop maturity of “Malibu.” Still only 24, she’s out to rebrand herself as a dues-paying twerk-free Nashville adult – any remaining Flaming Lips influence has gotten toned way down.
Miley’s ace in the hole has always been the dusky country ache in her voice, which she’s carried with her through all her incarnations. All over Younger Now, she revives her Southern accent, demonstrating her Nashville bona fides by including a voicemail from her godmom Dolly Parton to cue their Monkees-esque duet “Rainbowland.” The songs are deliberately low-affect, if short on personality compared to her other albums. But the attention-getter is the finale “Inspired,” where she writes a folksy country ballad to express some of her fears about climate change, with the opening lines, “I’m writing down my dreams/All I’d like to see/Starting with the bees.” In this context, it’s refreshing to hear from the Old Weird Miley again.
For Shania, Now is her first album in 15 years, after a historic run that rewrote the rules of country with hits like “That Don’t Impress Me Much,” “You Win My Love” and “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” As a Canadian chanteuse married to Def Leppard’s producer, with zero nostalgia and no apparent sense of shame, Twain was perfectly positioned to mix up Eurodisco beats with fiddles and steel guitars for an emerging global audience. (She got her break singing in an Ontario resort revue called Viva Vegas, which made all the sense in the world.) Since her 2002 Up!, she’s endured a high-profile divorce from Mutt Lange, a two-year Las Vegas residency and a sorely underrated reality show on the Oprah Winfrey Network, Shania Twain: Why Not? (Not to mention blowing up Drake’s Instagram.)
From the opening seconds of “Swingin’ With My Eyes Closed,” it’s clear Shania’s up to her old genre-trashing tricks – the quasi-metal guitar twang and “We Will Rock You” stomp of “Any Man of Mine” meet a reggae skank, and for good measure, she urges us all to throw our fists in the air like we just don’t care. As you’d expect, the songs on Now are her mid-life personal statements, along the lines of “Poor Me” and “Roll Me on the River,” with an emphasis on post-divorce piano ballads about getting the Shania groove back. (As she sings in “Life’s About to Get Good,” “I wasn’t just broken, I was shattered/ … /I couldn’t move on and I think you were flattered.”) Maybe next time she’ll cover “Hotline Bling.” But like Miley, Shania is taking inspiration from the expansively chaotic sound of contemporary country pop – a sound she helped to shape in the first place.