There is no chart-topping pop singer alive today with a career as peculiar or as steadfastly anti-mainstream as Sia, last name Furler, whose latest album “This is Acting” debuted last Friday. After signing a recording contract with Sony Corporation in the early 2000s, she battled depression and fame-induced anxiety for years, becoming a recluse until the release of the darkly anthemic “1000 Forms of Fear” in 2014. The album spawned the Grammy-nominated single “Chandelier” and its accompanying music video, which amassed 1 billion views in a year. She returned to the stage with her back turned to the audience, refusing to show her face, and incited equal parts acclaim and jeering criticism for her zany style and aesthetic.
Much of that outlandish artistic persona — blonde bob wigs, interpretive dance and deeply personal, “too-dark-for-Top 40” subject matter — persists, albeit with some repetitive, even derivative qualities in “This is Acting.” Sia’s unmistakable voice is raw; arrhythmic, slurred, reaching notes that most artists would not dare attempt to sing in public, let alone put on an album. With producers Greg Kurstin and Jesse Shatkin’s pulsing and industrial production, “This is Acting” works in a very similar way to her previous album, which is both a successful yet limiting move on her part. The novel catch, however: almost all of the songs on “This is Acting” were written for and rejected by other artists.
Despite the album’s similarity to “1000 Forms of Fear,” Sia’s vocal and stylistic dexterity as a pop songwriter nevertheless takes center stage once again, metamorphosing fluidly from electronica and ska to piano ballad and back again to measurable success. The vaulting, head-banging repetitions of “I’m still breathin’/ I’m still breathin’” from “Alive,”originally written for Adele’s “25,” lead the tracks in strength and sheer stamina, with Sia’s enormous voice at full belt for the entirety of the chorus.
Meanwhile, the tranquil, reggae-infused “Cheap Thrills” brings to mind a late 2000s era Rihanna. Other personas — perhaps we can call them the characters — include the drum-driven “Move Your Body,” reminiscent of hits such as Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls)” and the retro flair of “Sweet Design,” which samples the hook of Sisqo’s infamous “Thong Song.”
The marketability of the album’s respective hooks is immediately apparent, yet takes on a morphed, personalized quality when carried by the signature quirks of Sia’s voice. The deliberate cracks at the high notes, exaggerated vibrato and atemporal syncopation may thrill the first-time listener, but begin to come off as faded and overused to others.
However, the most enrapturing, yet contradictorily most Sia-esque, aspect of the album is its unapologetic portrayal of the singer’s personal demons. They are watered down by simple lyrics and catchy hooks, yet contain a truth slipped in through the verses that come from a place of real depth and darkness. Sia, who once contemplated suicide, entered a 12-step program and returned to writing songs at lightning speed in 2010, often composing and recording in the span of 40 minutes. In an interview with The New York Times in 2014, she said that this occupation was ample replacement for the addictive personality that entangled her with drugs and alcohol abuse in the first place.
That consummate pain and fear remains an eye-catching staple on the album’s tracks, perhaps proving that however common the motif of suffering may be in Sia’s contemporary music, their truth will always be emotionally impactful. The Kanye West-produced “Reaper” deals with Sia’s brushes with death head-on, repeating the chorus lines of “You came to take me away/ So close I was to heaven’s gates.” And yet, “Reaper,” arguably one of the album’s most inspiring highlights, simultaneously reflects a newfound peace, mirroring Sia’s sobriety and 2014 marriage with the lines “Oh Reaper, Oh no baby not today/ So come back when I’m good to go/ I got drinks to drink, and men to hold/ I got good things to do with my life”.
It seems that these days, all anybody needs to become mainstream music’s next star is a little creativity. In December, Chance the Rapper became the first independent artist to perform as the musical guest on “Saturday Night Live,” and still remains unsigned despite the soaring success of his band’s electronic gospel chorus, “Sunday Candy.” In 2014, Canadian singer Shawn Mendes became one of the youngest charting artists in history at 15 years of age after Island Records executives discovered him posting six-second song covers on the social network Vine.
Given this novelty-focused landscape of modern music, “This is Acting” can in many ways feel like a deluxe version of “1000 Forms of Fear,” borrowing themes, lyricisms and even rhythm patterns from older songs with little variation. Yet, the album’s unparalleled honesty and rawness contain a weight, the objective emotional impact of which is far more difficult to criticize.
“This is Acting” is not the reinvented sophomore effort with which most pop singers attempt to rival their first album’s success. Almost everything, from the production and lyrics down to the music video aesthetics, remains the same from her previous album, but they come as only the latest in Sia’s chameleonic, decade-spanning career, and are some of the first in which the singer seems to be honestly portraying herself, despite having written the songs for others.
Musicians operate in an industry that constantly asks for novelty, characters, costume-changes and never looking back, but it is clear that this is not acting. It is clear that this is simply Sia.