They say that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.
When it comes to Sia, even broken glass can be polished into fine china.
It’s unnecessary to introduce pop music’s most frequently called-upon songwriter in 2016: Few divas remain without at least one song credited to Sia Furler: Beyoncé, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Kelly Clarkson, Carly Rae Jepsen, Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Lopez, Shakira, Kylie Minogue, Celine Dion — all of them owe some part of their discography to the Australian singer-songwriter. (Give her just a little more time to check off a few more names on the list…)
More than being a good songwriter, Sia has redefined what it means to a pop star: she is as much a massively successful singer as she is a behind-the-scenes industry standard, putting her in an incredibly unique position.
Yet she’s uneasy with the whole fame thing, which is why she started hiding her face — a symbol of her disinterest in celebrity. The move also gave her an excuse to start staging elaborate, artsy distractions on stage to accompany her as she belted out her songs in the corner, and she’s damn honest about it.
“I still believe I’m straddling the line between art and commerce, but I think that my visual work is art and my music is definitely commercial. I think I managed to trick people a little bit into thinking I’m more arty by making creative, artistic, visual work and applying it to commercial music. Maybe. I don’t know,” she told Rolling Stone. (That whole interview is an essential accompanying read — her blunt honesty about what actually happens behind the scenes of these pop star sessions is eye-opening.)
This new era is in some ways the inverse of last year’s 1000 Forms Of Fear. The music is light, uplifting and usually hopeful — there’s nothing quite as devastating as “Big Girls Cry” or as unhinged as “Free The Animal.”
And, unlike the tortured cohesion of 1000 Forms, This Is Acting doesn’t tell a specific story beyond its very straightforward mission statement: this is a greatest hits collection of hits that never were.
From “Cheap Thrills,” originally considered for Rihanna‘s ANTI (I said all I want to say about that) to the Kanye West co-penned and co-produced “Reaper” to “Alive,” a thunderous ode to endurance co-penned with Adele (who seems to be doing alright), these are almost all songs written with other artists in mind. Look at the wig this era — see how it’s half her signature blonde bob, half “other”?
Accordingly, there’s a freedom in the music that she hasn’t personally had the opportunity to indulge in since her last album before becoming a mainstream superstar, 2010’s bouncy We Are Born.
Take, for example, the “Thong Song”-sampling “Sweet Design.”
“My junk hypnotize the whole room / Bump, bump / I’mma rub it up on you!” she wildly declares across the horn-filled, Sisqo-sampling club jam, bringing Amerie‘s “1 Thing” and Jennifer Lopez‘s “Do It Well” to mind. Sure, those lyrics are seemingly beneath the same woman who wrote a soaring substance abuse cautionary tale called “Chandelier,” but…that’s the point. She’s usually pretty silly, you know.
“Move Your Body,” a pulsating Shakira offering, proves once again that the “Titanium” singer is a more than welcome addition to the club scene, providing a sweaty, carnal call-to-arms filled with an instant catchy chant for the dance floor.
But, fear not: there’s still plenty of heartbreak and hurt. This is still the singer behind “Breathe Me,” after all.
“Footprints,” a soul-saving moment originally penned for Beyoncé‘s 2013 album in the Hamptons, borrows from Mary Stevenson’s classic biblical-themed poem “Footprints In The Sand,” and chills with its lump-in-throat-producing swell of strings and emotional cries of relief: “Thought you had abandoned me and let go of my hand / But you were carrying me, carrying me to safety…” A personal highlight, for sure.
“Bird Set Free,” which went from being considered for the Pitch Perfect 2 soundtrack to Rihanna to Adele before ultimately coming right back to Sia, soldiers onward across piano melodies and a striding beat in the face of adversity — a common theme in Sia’s music — with a refreshingly can’t-please-’em-all attitude that matches the trajectory of the song behind-the-scenes. There’s something much more convincing about the line “I don’t care if I sing off-key / I find myself in my melodies / I sing for love, I sing for me” knowing that Sia took back the song to sing for herself. They say if you love something, let it go…
In interviews, Sia’s pointed to the Jesse Shatkin-assisted “One Million Bullets,” as an original she was intent on keeping for herself. (She referred to it as “my baby” in RS.) It makes sense, too: The song is distinctly Sia, moreso than most other Acting songs with its quirky vibrato (“I got a feeling a danger is coming, ah-oh-oh-oh-oh…“) and morbid imagery, a la 1000 Forms. “I’d give my life for one of your belly laughs,” she surrenders.
While a few songs feel destined for specific acts, most are pretty ambiguous, including the Jack Antonoff co-penned “House On Fire,” which plays like a more pristine pop-flavored cousin to “Fire Meets Gasoline” dedicated to going down in flames in love. (It might have made for a good Katy Perry cut if Prism went darker.)
The huge “Unstoppable” has immediate universal appeal, meant to provide that final motivational push — think grueling workouts, sporting events and final rounds. “I’m so powerful, I don’t need batteries today / I’m so confident / Yeah, I’m unstoppable today,” she mightily declares. This could have been anyone’s song, but it feels right with a true powerhouse at the wheel.
For the vocal size queens, as soon as “Alive” wears out its welcome, there is “Space Between,” the album’s howling, melancholy closer. (Actually, Miley could have nailed this in her current Dead Petz state.) This is the point at which Sia abandons her commercial songwriting structure entirely — if anything, it feels like a return to a time around Some People Have Real Problems or earlier; a treat for those who’ve been along for the ride from day one. It’s agonizing. Fitting, then, that this is where Sia’s brief acting stint comes to an end.
There’s something bold, or maybe just a little fabulous, about the idea behind This Is Acting. “Oh, these? I just had them lying around.” Few songwriters could be afforded that kind of luxury, and it’s admittedly fun as a pop nerd to play A&R exec while listening and ponder the many potential pairings between songs and singers. After all, this isn’t merely a collection of passable B-sides and discards that deservedly got the axe — several of these songs could have conceivably been hits in the right hands.
But then again, who needs ’em?
In the end, it all comes back to the actor taking on all the roles herself: Sia. In playing the parts of dozens of others, she only demonstrates further that her talent is truly one-of-a-kind.
This Is Acting was released on January 29. (iTunes)