Miley Cyrus waited until the end of her concert at the Wiltern on Saturday to tell the audience why she was there, and maybe that was because she hadn’t wanted to give anyone the wrong idea by explaining it earlier.
Seated behind a grand piano, Cyrus described the show as her response to a feeling that developed while she was on the road last year behind her album “Bangerz.” The singer’s job at that time was erasing her history as a Disney Channel star; “Bangerz” was self-consciously outrageous, full of in-your-face raunch and bumptious hip-hop beats.
But partway through that tour, Cyrus’ dog Floyd died, and she suddenly didn’t feel like shaking her rump anymore, she recalled Saturday in more vivid language. Instead, she wanted to be surrounded by people who understood the pain of losing a beloved animal, who shared her conviction that “nature is always right,” as she put it, and that the environment must be defended from man’s unfeeling encroachments. And so, “Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz,” an album and accompanying road show, were born.
You can imagine what this little speech might’ve portended if Cyrus had delivered it at the beginning of Saturday’s concert: an Indigo Girls gig, perhaps. And that’s definitely not what it was like at the Wiltern, where the eye-popping two-hour production featured wild costumes, ample drug talk and one sequence in which the singer pole-danced while dressed as an oversized baby, diaper and all.
But if Cyrus’ earnest proclamation seemed out of sync with her free-spirited performance, the conviction behind it provided an energy and a sense of purpose almost entirely lacking from the “Dead Petz” album, which she wrote and recorded with veteran psych-rock band the Flaming Lips, among other collaborators. Released online after Cyrus’ appearance as the host of this year’s MTV Video Music Awards, the record is a slackly paced mishmash of dopey chants and drifting electronic textures; it suggests a punk’s tragic evolution into a hippie.
At the Wiltern, though, songs like “Dooo It!” and “I Forgive Yiew” sounded jumpy and forceful, with some of the brazen intensity of the “Bangerz” material. And Cyrus brought real emotion to ballads such as “Karen Don’t Be Sad” and “The Floyd Song (Sunrise),” both of which displayed her very strong singing. “Pablow the Blowfish,” inspired by another of her dearly departed pets, was uncomfortably intimate (in a good way), a quality Cyrus put to even more effective use in “BB Talk,” about being grossed out by a lover’s public display of affection.
As her backing band, the Flaming Lips gave the music new shape and heft that kept it from dissipating the way it does on “Dead Petz.” At times, the band pushed the sound toward pop, as in “Lighter,” a shimmering 1980s-style love song, and “Fweaky,” which could’ve passed for some kind of alternate-universe Cher jam.
Not everything worked so well. A sub-Pink Floyd dirge, “Tiger Dreams” was irredeemably dreary, while “Evil Is but a Shadow” felt like bad Lana Del Rey. But even in performing those songs, Cyrus seemed more driven than she does in their recorded versions, as though she had a destination in mind.
The concert ended with “We Can’t Stop,” one of just a couple of old tunes she performed. On “Bangerz,” the song is a cheerful provocation from a young artist no longer bound by the restrictions of the kiddie-TV complex. Yet here it became a fierce plea for animal rights as Cyrus was joined by Pamela Anderson, of all people, who held a sign reading “Save the Whales” and had “No Captivity” scrawled on her exposed leg.
Often thought of as a shallow shock artist, Cyrus on Saturday was a misfit on a mission, a rebel with a clearly defined cause.