“I’ll tell you what you want to hear,” Sia promises on “Unstoppable.” The Australian-born songstress (full name: Sia Furler) has written for Beyonce (“Pretty Hurts”), Rihanna (“Diamonds”), and Britney Spears (“Perfume”), to name just a few. She’s a pop queenmaker, and for good reason. Her original rendition of “Let Me Love You” (later popularized by NeYo) speaks to both her raw vocal talent and penchant for songs about vulnerability and resilience. In recent years, she’s turned a mostly jazz background and expansive songwriting portfolio into her own pop career, most recently with the successful hit single “Chandelier.” On “This is Acting,” she blurs the lines between her roles as artist and songwriter, composing the album solely of songs rejected by other artists.
Sia embraces the identity crisis that this concept prompts. She dissolves the institution of the pop star ego, hiding her face behind an ostentatious black and gold wig in all public appearances, and featuring everyday individuals wearing the same wig on all her single covers. The transferability of her message has long been an organizing principle for a songwriter like Sia, and that’s — ironically — never more acute than on her own album. On “This is Acting,” Sia decides not to pass the wig to Rihanna or Beyonce or Britney, handing it to the audience instead.
The album’s title plays on the duality of (and contrasts between) inward vulnerability and outward performance, inspired by the artist’s own struggles with depression and the music industry. On “Reaper” (a Rihanna reject), “Alive,” “Bird Set Free” (Adele rejects), and “Unstoppable,” Sia alternates between maligning fame, depression and death itself, often characterized and combined by an enigmatic “you.” On the triumphant “Alive,” she murmurs, “I had a one-way ticket to the place where all the demons go,” as the lyric video shows the same text over a wall graffitied, “HOLLYWOOD.” Like all great pop artists, she turns her struggle into anthem.
But if darker moments like these are the wig’s black half, Sia also embraces the gold. “Footprints” is angsty love with a cute twist, an ode to the power of support in times of need. Upbeat party bangers “Cheap Thrills” and “Move Your Body” are certain top-40 additions, owing to sheer force of will (they’re written to be irresistible). “Sweet Design,” a homage to Sia’s alternative sonic roots, reminds us of her versatility — and that no one’s too aloof to make a song about rear ends. It’s hard to tell how seriously we’re meant to take this less personal material, but my guess is not very. Ultimately, Sia’s big sound accomplishes its mission — seducing you in 4/4 time, in both colors.
If anything stops “This is Acting” from being a top-tier album, it’s formula. Over the course of the album, Sia’s trademarks — melody-first and lyrics-second writing, perfect vocal quirks and big drums — begin to feel practiced and inauthentic, though these same qualities have made Sia songs successful previously (take “Chandelier”). Sia’s template for pop songs makes every track listenable, and has made her successful, but this repetition degrades the work as a whole. Songs like “Broken Glass” and “House on Fire” (which continues a fire motif that deserves to be retired) are skippable, and she struggles to break out on the miasmic “One Million Bullets.”
The album’s troubles, however, are redeemed by its best moments. On “Space Between,” the final track of “This is Acting,” her masterful pop equation works, as she grieves over love turned bitter. Every note speaks heartbreak. Sia feels real and relatable.
Then again, it could all be acting.
Contact Joshua Seawell at jseawell ‘at’ stanford.edu.