What happens when one of the most successful and prolific songwriters of the past few years decides to return to the career that debilitated her emotionally and physically?
Fear. It pervades the daily existence of singer-songwriter Sia Furler, and provided clear inspiration for the title of her latest album. In recent interviews, the pop star has openly discussed her past struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, her intense reluctance to embrace fame, her battle with stage fright and depression, the life-altering intervention that prevented her from committing suicide, and her diagnosis with Graves’ disease. While fear had seemingly crippled Furler to the point of contemplating a way to end her life, it ultimately gave birth to an unexpected career penning smash hits for some of the music world’s most popular artists. From Beyoncé to Britney, Ne-Yo to Rihanna, Sia was able to quietly remain on the sidelines, garnering a small fortune while writing songs for others. In the interim, she received treatment for her disease, became sober, and discovered the bankable power of using a simple metaphor in a pop song. What happens when one of the most successful and prolific songwriters of the past few years decides to return to the career that debilitated her emotionally and physically?
For those individuals who only know Furler through her David Guetta and Flo Rida collaborations, “Titanium” and “Wild Ones”, the sonic fabric of 1000 Forms of Fear will seem but a natural extension of what they’ve come to expect from her recent output. It is decidedly commercial, especially when compared to an album such as Colour the Small One. For longtime Furler fans, who have lingered around since Healing Is Difficult, the bleak lyrics will appear to be one of the few recognizable elements left over from the quirky artist they have come to know and worship. The musically eccentric Sia of yore has all but left the building. She’s been replaced by a blonde wig and a disembodied voice, one that emanates from the lips of a face that never turns to acknowledge its audience. What a formidable instrument it is though, even when it cracks at the seams.
Where face paint and masks had previously shrouded her image in darkness on stage, the golden bob she presently sports has taken the theatrics to an entirely different level. It’s a bit bizarre to witness a pop star physically rejecting and embracing the limelight all at once, yet this faceless image has proven to be as much an attraction, as the avant-garde artistry dancing across the stage around it. Her performance anxiety has been confronted in an unconventional way, and it has given her the strength to step out of the shadows once again and bravely take the mic.
The gloriously epic opener “Chandelier” will, without a doubt, go down as one of the greatest pop songs of 2014. Sia has waxed lyrical on the subject of alcoholism before, even as far back as “Drink to Get Drunk”, where she sang, "I use booze to unlock me." Here she’s swinging from the rafters singing, "help me I’m holding on for dear life", and painfully struggles with the shame she feels the morning after the drunken festivities have died down. As Furler has proven time and again while promoting the track in a live setting, her voice is anything but a product of studio wizardry. The breadth and scope of her talent is relatively unparalleled amongst her peers. It’s highly doubtful any of the pop singers she writes for could have delivered a performance with as much fortitude and vulnerability. The vocal pyrotechnics alone are dazzling, but the emotional depth she exhibits through lyrics that aren’t particularly complex, impresses the most.
The uptempo trio of “Burn the Pages”, “Elastic Heart” and “Fire Meet Gasoline” instantly jump out of the record as obvious future singles; they’re the most radio-friendly of the 12-song collection. As she began singing the opening phrase of “Burn the Pages”, it seemed that Regina Spektor has been invited to come on board the project, for Furler’s timbre here sounds strikingly similar to that of the Russian-American singer-songwriter. While the prospects of such a collaboration would have been interesting, the song’s incorporation of choral voices and the “seize the day, forget the past” sentiment of the lyrics, are more than enough to warrant the existence of the repeat button.
Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons might have begged to differ, but Furler believes that big girls do indeed cry. She sings, "I may cry ruining my makeup / Wash away all the things you’ve taken / I don’t care if I don’t look pretty / Big girls cry when their hearts are breaking", on the second track of the album. The piano ballad “Big Girls Cry” and the sweeping, attitudinal “Free the Animal” have Rihanna written all over them, just as “Fire Meet Gasoline” sounds like “Halo” part two. Lady Knowles could have easily sung the latter track and made it a gigantic hit, but it is interesting to hear Furler’s performance of something so overtly mainstream. The reality is that a singer like Rihanna, while talented, owes a large portion of her success to the penmanship of musicians like Sia Furler. A voice is only as good as the material it sings.
The album does have its “filler” moments. “Hostage” would have fit perfectly, nestled within the songs of her last album We Are Born, but here it sticks out like a giraffe in a herd of zebras, overtly reminiscent of an Ida Maria single. “Straight for the Knife” comes and goes without leaving much of an initial impression, and unfortunately its clever lyrics eclipse the aimless melody: "Put on my best dress, I wanted to impress. I put a little make-up on / Put a bow in my hair, wore pretty underwear, hoping you might take it off." Sia’s wit ultimately saves the middle section of the album from crumbling under the weight of its fleeting mediocrity.
The brilliant, grinding, glitchy, Diplo-helmed “Elastic Heart” sees Furler joined by the Canadian PBR&B singer-producer the Weeknd. His reedy, Michael Jackson-esque tenor provides an interesting foil to her earthy delivery. Along with “Chandelier”, it’s one of the album’s best moments. Sia gives a hell of an impressive vocal turn on “Eye of the Needle”, that voice almost rending apart one moment and soaring the next. “Fair Game” contains a delightfully charming xylophone solo, recalling the wacky Sia of years past. The beautifully languid “Cellophane” unites the Sia of old with her latest incarnation, as woozy guitars, cello, and a tour de force vocal performance elevate this far above typical Top-40 fodder. The album concludes with a hopeful roar, as Sia sings about being guided out of the darkness in “Dressed in Black”. The final two minutes of improvisatory wailing are riveting.
In delivering her most mainstream pop collection yet, Furler, the blonde bob with the solid pipes of gold, has built on the dance-pop aesthetic she began injecting into her sound on 2010’s We Are Born. She has given her fans, both past and present, one distinct reason to rejoice. They can rest assured knowing that at least her impressive vocal talents didn’t vanish into pop culture obscurity. While her latest album won’t satisfy everyone’s musical tastes, it displays the work of an artist who has an undeniable knack for writing massive, anthemic melodies, and for crafting lyrics that display more emotional resonance than is typically found at the top of the Billboard charts. The occasional filler that clutters 1000 Forms of Fear prevents it from really lifting off as a cohesive piece, but as mainstream pop albums go, there are few as well-crafted or executed as Furler has delivered here.
Sia, the trip-hop vocalist and idiosyncratic, indie pop artist may have been casually pushed aside as her sound has evolved, but Furler has little to fear these days except for the unrelenting fame she detests the most. Hiding behind a brown paper bag as she poses for a photo-shoot or singing to a wall won’t keep it at bay. Whether she likes it or not, that jaw-dropping voice is both her dearest friend and her worst enemy.