Review: Sia's This is Acting

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I SUPPOSE the ultimate irony regarding the work of Sia Furler is that, in spite of her relentless commitment to remaining a faceless figure in front of the media, her 19-year solo career arch has begun to look more like a self-awareness bell curve. For more than a decade, critics have considered Sia the rare talent capable of both penning captivating pop songs and delivering showstopper vocal performances. Dual-threat artists are certainly nothing new, but Sia the Artist stopped being a thing more than 15 years ago. Most recently, Sia has expressed interest in only being Sia the Pop Songwriter. Her most recent consideration as a performer happened despite her own preference, which doesn’t exactly happen every day. Now, in terms of complicated anecdotes, this one ranks very high on the list, so I’m going to skip the details. The bottom line is this: Don’t let David Guetta remix your shit, because he might end up using the original vocal track on a song you wrote for someone else.

By 2011, Sia had a decision to make. She could either exist as a songwriter/performer on as close to her own terms as possible, or she could not exist as a songwriter/performer at all. Lucky for anyone who likes brutally honest pop music, she has chosen the former over the past five years. In accordance with her own terms, Sia began covering her face so as to remove her identity from the equation of fame. As it turns out, she likes going to the grocery store, and she’d like to keep going to the grocery store without the worry of fan assault.

Keep in mind: Amid the whole identity thing, Sia never stopped dropping explosive pop songs, either for her or for other artists. In fact, by 2013, tracks like “Elastic Heart”, “Chandelier”, and “Eye of the Needle” became some of the most transparently written pop songs to hit Top 40 radio. By the time 2014 LP 1,000 Forms of Fear hit stands, audiences were clamoring to get their hands on this new brand of pop music. To the surprise of no one, Fear succeeded by nearly ever metric.

Is it kind of awesome that some of the most identifiable pop music of the past five years was written and recorded by an artist who is physically unidentifiable for much of her fan base? Yes. But when this is your game, how critical does it become for your music to remain as identifiable as possible?

It depends. This is Acting, Sia’s seventh LP, comes as a bit of a shock in how derivative it sounds at first. I’m used to a Sia Furler who sounds effortless on her recordings—as though these sky-high ruminations on love, addiction and fame’s influence on both are being caught on tape as quickly as they materialize in her brain. “Chandelier” will remain one of the decade’s most reverent pop songs for a lot of reasons, but most palpable is Sia’s conviction. The controlled whimper, the breathless plea, the unhinged heart—the emotions Sia injects into her performances can’t be taught. They are visceral reactions to real-life pain; it just so happens that they sound flawless.

This is Acting features the same natural phenomena, but there’s something just a little off about it. Sia sounds tired; many moments that possess every ingredient necessary for giant pop music magic falls short due to a conductor who sounds just a few degrees shy of convinced. Album pre-runner “Unstoppable” borders on uselessly cheesy, while “Sweet Design” sounds like it was written by literally any female pop songwriter other than Sia, but like in a bad way. “Space Between” is boring, and “Footprints” almost sounds like a song about Jesus.

But, I say “it depends” because for as lacking as This is Acting is at moments, it really shines at others. “Bird Set Free” employs the same simply developed pop foundation that made “Elastic Heart” so fresh. I always love it when Sia exposes the super-rigid undertones in her mezzosoprano, and on both “Bird Set Free” and “Alive” she willfully outlines her work with several of these moments, pushing her own boundaries so forcefully that they erode on-sight. These intentional deformities make certain moments seem vintage and smoky and painfully real—a token move of the Sia from days bygone—just before transforming into the more expectedly powerful ones we’ve come to expect from Sia today.

Truthfully, I think that’s the whole point of This is Acting: Sia Furler has made quite an impressive journey from songwriter to performer back to songwriter back to performer. We’re talking about 20 years aggregate if you include her time as the lead singer for both Crisp and Zero 7. Each album has improved her reputation as an honest, steadfast and incredibly driven artist, but every project did so in different ways. Some of those ways worked better than others, but This is Acting serves less as another step down her path and more like a look back on all the ground she has covered thus far. If that’s the case, then I can’t completely condemn the album for its missteps. And even if it’s not the case, the missteps are by no means dramatic enough for us to be deterred from the mad genius of Furler. Whether we like her or not, Sia might be authoring the most iconic pop music of our generation. For this reason alone, This is Acting is worth at least one listen. B MINUS