ARTIST OF THE MONTH: SIA | THIS IS ACTING (2016)
There is no chart-topping pop singer alive today with a career as peculiar or as steadfastly anti-mainstream as Sia, whose album “This Is Acting” was released on January 29, 2016, by Inertia. After signing a recording contract with Sony Corporation in the early 2000s, she battled depression and fame-induced anxiety for years, becoming a hermit 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. 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.
Then, part of the pleasure of "This Is Acting" comes from the game of matching songs to their could-have-been singers. The risk is that people will infer that this is the reject pile. Sia’s openness about the songs’ background signals either great confidence that they will overcome that stigma or a cynical assumption that our fascination with celebrity interplay is the most potent attractor of all. More meta yet, the album opens with “Bird Set Free,” which comes across as a recap of Sia’s career and a manifesto for her self-realization as a songwriter: “I found myself in my melodies … I’ll shout it out like a bird set free.” "Pitch Perfect 2" and Rihanna reportedly turned it down; Adele recorded it but ultimately left it and other offerings by Sia off her "25" albums.
Along with several other "This Is Acting" tracks, “Bird” was produced by Greg Kurstin, who also worked on “Hello” and other tunes for her album "25." it’s underscored by a rolling piano line that would have been at home there. Likewise, "The first single, “Alive,” was co-written with the British diva Adele and had a similar outsize-chorus catharsis. But it’s a bloodier, more ragged performance than Adele would chance — when Sia hits the high notes, her voice twists like a metal singer. This sense of hazard recalls her last album, "1000 Forms of Fear," and the one song here that Sia has said she wrote for herself, “One Million Bullets,” is also reminiscent of that record’s mood and the one you want on repeat.
After a few songs, though, the listener begins to worry that since these tracks were all intended as singles, there will be no relief from huge choruses and banging beats. An electronic-marching-band effect comes like an onslaught in “Move Your Body,” reportedly written for Shakira, overwhelming what could have been a much more sinuous dance track. By the time one gets to “Unstoppable,” which sounds like a Katy Perry reject, Sia’s boast that she’ll never cease sounds more like a threat. The good news is that in the middle, there are two lighter, wittier tunes that Sia has said were meant for Rihanna: “Reaper” and “Cheap Thrills.” The bad news is that "This Is Acting" starts sounding like a scrap heap with the five songs that follow.
“This is Acting” is not the reinvented sophomore effort with which most pop singers attempt to rival their first album’s success. From the production and lyrics to the music video aesthetics, almost everything remains the same as her previous album. Still, 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.