opinion byPETER TABAKIS < @ptabakis >
Sia Furler, the enigmatic Australian singer, doesn’t go in for the whole fame thing. But two weeks ago, listeners to Howard Stern’s radio show would have heard a remarkable conversation with the pop star who doesn’t want you to know who she is. A single, poignant sentence gave insight into her incongruous career: “I didn’t know who I was until three-and-a-half years ago” she said. Not a platitude, it was a revealing admission from the 38-year-old artist. What those words communicated is that Sia’s emergence as a magician of pop music has been about self-discovery – no, really – rather than a desire for multiple beachfront palaces.
If you’ve seen the final episode of HBO’s Six Feet Under, which first aired nine years ago, you’ve heard this singer-songwriter at her best. Sia’s “Breathe Me” elevated the episode’s concluding moments from extraordinary to immortal. It resuscitated Sia’s floundering career and at the same time brought her tremendous personal distress. She resented the business of success, particularly the countless obligatory promotional appearances that accompany an album’s release. Sia has told how she was with a close friend, talking, when a fan interrupted their conversation to request a photograph – just as her friend was revealing a recent cancer diagnosis. This is the emblematic moment for what came after. It’s when everything changed.
Furler began obscuring her face with multi-colored markers and, eventually, dark paint before performing onstage. Alcohol and drugs served to numb her brain for life offstage. At one point, she’d called her dealer and ordered “two of everything.” By chance, a phone call from a friend changed her plans for what would have been her final meal. In the aftermath of that experience she saw fame as the fuel on which her demons fed. She retreated from public view and joined a twelve-step program. Rejecting fame allowed her to find her true self. And the truth is, Sia Furler is a songwriting dynamo on par with Max Martin and Dr. Luke.
Sia tosses off hits in less time than it takes most people to get ready in the morning. Go ahead, name a star. Beyoncé? Katy? Rihanna? Christina? Britney? Shakira? All these chart-toppers line up for Sia’s demo tracks. Her touch is everywhere, and she’s not merely knocking out catchy melodies. Take her contribution to David Guetta’s “Titanium.” Sia’s soaring hook has broken free of its EDM context and become a cultural sensation on its own, from singing competitions to a key scene in the film Pitch Perfect. (Just the other morning, I experienced a wonderful hall-of-mirrors moment when “Titanium” rang through the speakers of a popular DC coffeehouse, at the same time that another Sia song blasted through my headphones.) And then there are her distinctive vocal inflections, borrowed by entertainers as different as Rihanna and – guess what? – the Best Singer in the World!
On 1000 Forms of Fear, Sia finally applies her commercial songwriting formula (“Find a strong title, milk the metaphor”) to explore her struggles with mental illness and substance abuse. The truly astounding “Chandelier” — a rightful contender for song of the summer, if not the year – begins her sixth album both from on high and at rock bottom. Most listeners have overlooked the darkness at the song’s center and instead focused on its exultant chorus. This kind misunderstanding happens every so often in popular music. Michael Stipe famously expressed incredulity, and a little disgust, about all the hugging and kissing he’d witness whenever R.E.M. played their emotionally vacant and genuinely cruel hit single “The One I Love” live. Far from a seize-the-day anthem, “Chandelier” describes the ravages of full-blown alcoholism. It’s right there in the song’s bridge (“Help me, I’m holding on for dear life”) and its verses (“Can’t feel anything, when will I learn” and “Sun is up, I’m a mess” and, of course, “Here comes the shame, here comes the shame”). Then there’s the ugly and macabre twist built into the song’s hook, with the singer dangling from the chandelier hands-free (“But will someone find me swinging from the rafters,” she asks on “Straight for the Knife”).
The rest of 1000 Forms of Fear booms with similar bleakness, though not nearly as deftly. Some songs, such as “Eye of the Needle,” “Elastic Heart,” and “Fire Meet Gasoline,” come enticingly close to the standard set by “Chandelier.” But those exceptions are diminished by slightly weaker, similar-sounding company (see “Big Girls Cry,” “Burn the Pages,” and “Free the Animal”). When Sia and producer Greg Kurstin depart furthest from their sonic blueprint, as on the bouncy “Hostage” (featuring Strokes guitarist Nick Valensi), the torchy “Cellophane,” and the ominously spare “Fair Game,” the listener’s relief comes at a cost: melodies that barely rise above the stuff of pop-album filler. Though her new material is of mixed quality, Sia’s instrument remains uniformly magnificent. She executes vocal cartwheels throughout these twelve songs, delivering great pain with even greater triumph.
When Sia sings in person these days, she onlyshowstheaudience the back of the platinum-blonde bob that has become her trademark. Those live performances all end as they should: with thunderous ovations. 1000 Forms of Fear has the inverse effect. It finds Furler in stark, naked view. But I can't muster more than a nod of admiration. Sia deserves a crowning accomplishment to match her phenomenal talent and remarkable story. Two cheers for 1000 Forms of Fear, which proves such an album is well within her grasp. B-