This is Acting, Sia, RCA Records, $10.79 (on Amazon)
Australian pop songwriter and singer Sia Furler’s biggest sore point in her latest album, This is Acting, is that it is not entirely her own. Sure, each of the 12 concoctions are hers by make, but were originally mixed for the distinct vocals of bigger soul and pop musicians — Beyonce, Rihanna and Adele. Which is why, when the album, coming closely after her abundantly edgy, emotional and dynamic 1000 Forms of Fear, released earlier this year, analogies were inevitably drawn, reducing her usual subversive game to a fragmented affair. Despite this biting position, the 40-year-old has jumped headlong, unapologetically, into this heady mess of hers, her brusque vocals cutting sharply across what still is quite a colourful and dense electro-pop and soul product of her own.
Familiarity runs through the course of the album, which is difficult to miss, considering her collaborations with Kanye West, Greg Kurstin (who also co-wrote and produced Adele’s Hello) and Jesse Shatkin, among others. Sia is quick to turn this assortment of rejection pile into one thrashing ballad to another. Her acknowledgment comes slow and steady, beginning with Bird Set Free, where shards of chorus and piano run thrust through her sharp vocals as she sings, “And I don’t care if I sing off key/ I find myself in my melodies”. Alive comes with anthemic beats, a song originally meant for Adele’s powerhouse voice, which is perhaps more elevated given Sia’s gritty tenor, which rises and falls with each prolonged “I’m alive”, with great, unsettling tension.
The soulful meandering lessens as we approach Move Your Body, a botched-up mix of dance and a heavy electro influence that borders on repetition, in both verse and rhythm. If you like your pop uninhibited, with a dash of R&B here or a bit of soul there, Cheap Thrills and Reaper both discern and delight. The cavernous quality to Sia’s vocals shift to a mellowed-down pitch, going with an arrangement that is not just easy-going and finger-snapping, but also allude to the musician’s daunting experiment with what could be just another pop number. Her manic approach to happy club-thumping bangers and gospelised anthems find us at home with Footprints, where her “Lord knows you can’t trust your head/ When you’re standing on the edge” sounds jagged and sinister with each pulsating throb of percussion. For her concluding piece, Space Within, the singer goes minimalistic, her bleak vibrato against eerie twangs of electric riffs, leading to hopes of an optimistic crescendo but wistfully fades in space and time.
Maybe not a favourite, but This is Acting is definitely not trite. Against the mainstream chartbusters and billboards replete with sugar pop and head-rushing soul, Sia’s mess presents a quirky, crazy version of the genre that is a relief to resort to.