Even after a nearly 20-year long music career, Sia Furler is just starting to become a pop sensation. Before she released her first successful solo hit “Chandelier” and concealed her face from the public with her signature black-and-blonde wig, Sia was just a indie songstress, writing tracks for Christina Aguilera and singing lead vocals for acid jazz outfit Zero 7. She had released five solo records, two of which made the U.S. Billboard 200 but failed to reach notoriety. However, her sixth album, 2014’s underrated, chart-topping 1000 Forms of Fear, paved the way for Sia not just as a songwriter but as an experienced musician making her way to the top. With her newest record This is Acting, Sia is embracing this newfound superstardom while retaining her deft songwriting abilities with 12 vigorous tracks.
Many of the tracks off This is Acting were intended for other musicians, but Sia hones her groundbreaking vocals and maximalist production to transform each song as if it were her own. 1000 Forms of Fear reflected the pain and loneliness of Sia’s past experiences with depression, alcoholism and drug abuse. In contrast, This is Acting boasts an overarching optimism that sounds both authentic and liberating. On the piano-laden opener “Bird Set Free,” Sia howls, “And I don’t care if I sing off key / I find myself in my melodies.” It’s sounds corny, sure, but with the Australian singer’s impeccable vocal range, it’s impossible to not get chills. The record’s recurring theme of persistence against adversity continues in “Alive,” another spine-tingling ballad and “Unstoppable,” an empowering confidence booster perfect for exercising at the gym or a random dance party in your bedroom.
Kelly Clarkson collaborator and renowned pop producer Greg Kurstin provides the infectious beats of the ecstatic “Move Your Body,” the dancehall-infused “Cheap Thrills” and the hip-hop heavy “Sweet Design” — arguably the album’s strongest track. Of course, there are some bumps in the road, particularly with the middling throwaway “Footprints” and the sluggish “One Million Bullets,” which ironically was the only song on This is Acting not intended for another artist. Yet even on songs that fall flat, Sia manages to add some flavor using her powerhouse of a voice. “Reaper” suffers from being a formulaic ballad, but regains some energy through Kanye West’s production. The synth-pop jam “House on Fire” is lukewarm, until Sia soars when the chorus hits and the production switches from tepid to sparkly. The heart-wrenching penultimate track “Broken Glass” starts out bland, but Sia’s two powerful key changes save the song from sounding stationary. Sia briefly returns to a place of brokenness and despair on the album closer “Space Between.” But instead of regressing into pessimism, Sia sounds more emancipated than ever.
It’s interesting to think about what these songs could have sounded like had they been recorded by their original performers. “Bird Set Free” had been rejected three times, first by “Pitch Perfect 2” producers (who favored Jessie J’s anthem “Flashlight”), then by Rihanna and finally by Adele. “Alive” was also initially intended for Adele’s 25, but didn’t make the cut, even though Sia co-wrote the song with Adele and indie pop artist Tobias Jesso Jr. Rihanna also rejected “Cheap Thrills” and “Reaper.” Some sources speculated “Unstoppable” was meant for Demi Lovato’s Confident, another pop record that, like Sia’s, channeled happiness and buoyancy in efforts of escaping past negative experiences. Regardless of how these songs could have sounded, Sia crafts This is Acting so meticulously and effortlessly that you forget about what could have been.
With the right balance of electric club bangers and poignant power ballads, This is Acting hits the ground running at lightspeed and doesn’t stop until the very end. For those who think Sia had reached her peak with “Chandelier,” you could not be more wrong. At 40 years old, Sia is just getting started, and This is Acting proves that she still has some tricks up her sleeve.