For a pop star with as colorful a past as Miley Cyrus, a clean-cut, serenely titled single like Malibu feels like a breath of fresh air. A departure from the EDM-flavored brashness of her Bangerz (2013) and Dead Petz (2015) albums, this is the Miley that makes you believe she’s back for good—and that her future is brighter than ever.
Miley’s chameleonic showmanship has gotten her into trouble at times, as with her abrasive flirtations with rap and phallic imagery in the era of Dead Petz. But her genre hopping also yielded a handful of great songs, such as her uplifting, ode-to-love ballad “Wrecking Ball” and last year’s sultry, acoustic Joanne.
Powered by its performance on the Tonight Show and a discount price point on iTunes, the surprisingly tender new track has roared back to the top of the US digital charts, currently occupying third place behind Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” (#1) and DJ Khaled’s new “Wild Thoughts” featuring Rihanna and Bryson Tiller (#2). Even Miley herself appears excited for this shift in direction, posting a video of herself clapping along to the song on Instagram with the caption, “This song is so special to me right now. I’m in Malibu.”
The California beach town is likely a reference to her rekindled relationship with ex-fiance and fellow actor Liam Hemsworth, with whom she just bought a new home after selling the one they once shared in Nashville. But there are other, more symbolic ties to the single: a stripped-down production of handclaps and electric guitars; lyrics that sound syllable-stuffed on paper but come out smooth and convincing; and a tone that sounds more genuine than she’s allowed to be in most of her work over the last few years.