As a pop songwriter who can bend her style into many different forms, This Is Acting is the most compelling when Sia decides to simply be herself.
It's a funny thing, fame.
For the Australian-born Sia Furler, she's been in the spotlight for nearly 15 years, first breaking into the public consciousness in 2001 with her contributions to Zero 7's immaculately moody debut album Simple Things and then following her muse through five different (and varying) solo records, each one building up her NPR-flavored audience slowly and steadily, with Furler occasionally soundtracking a cultural touchstone like the Six Feet Under finale -- which in any other career would pretty much be the apex. In the late 2000s, Furler also began finding her niche as a pop songwriter, soon churning out album tracks for Christina Aguilera and Celine Dion and flat-out monster hits for the likes of Rihanna and Ne-Yo. Before long, Furler became an in-demand commodity, given so much clout that in 2014, saying yes to something like "working all of the songs our new Annie remake" seemed like a legitimately viable career move (fact check: it wasn't). Again, if it were any other career, those accomplishments alone would be more than enough.
Yet the second that Furler put on an oversized blonde wig and refrained from making eye contact with her audience while performing is the exact time that people began to take notice. The effectiveness of this conceit is arguable, especially given that her face has been seen in dozens upon dozens of music videos and live concerts prior, but people nonetheless love a good mystery, and in an era where Lady Gaga's wardrobe managed to turn the outlandish into the norm, Furler's strange presentation beguiled and intrigued more than it was readily dismissed, the mystery laying less in who she was as more in why she did it.
After collaborating with nascent electro-pop uber-producer Greg Kurstin for 2010's We Are Born, the two remained friends as they spent most of the early Aughts conquering the pop music machine on their own terms, Furler as a songwriter (and occasional hook girl for rap and techno smashes) and Kurstin as a go-to producer, helping write and create the sounds for hits ranging from Kelly Clarkson's "Stronger" to P!nk's "Try" to Ellie Goulding's "Burn" to Tegan & Sara's "Closer". So when Furler brought Kurstin back to helm her 2014 effort 1000 Forms of Fear, they found that perfect pitch between art and product, turning the genuine alcoholism lament "Chandelier" into a multi-platinum radio smash that is now butchered at every karaoke bar and used during the audition stages of every reality singing competition TV show, most people ignorant to its heartbreaking message, which parallels the reaction to Kendrick Lamar's "Swimming Pools" in downright eerie fashion. Emboldened by her success, Furler soon found her muse in the form of young dancer Maddie Ziegler, spoke openly in interviews about writing and directing a feature film, guested on Kanye West songs, and then, suddenly, it all came into sharp focus: Sia (The Star) had finally arrived, despite the fact that Sia (The Artist) had been around for well over a decade without much of anyone noticing.
So perhaps This is Acting, Furler's seventh full-length proper, isn't as radical an idea as we've been lead to believe. The story is that every song included here (save "One Million Bullets") was intended for another artist but not used or recorded for various reasons, Furler instead taking these rejects from the likes of Rihanna, Adele, and Kanye and putting her own stamp on them. It certainly reads like something more fitting of a B-side compilation or Tori Amos experiment, but because each song is its own fully-produced Sia entity, Acting reads less like a game of "Spot the influence!" and more just a celebrating of Furler's talents, of which there are many interesting and sometimes contradicting facets.
As a pop songwriter, Furler sometimes has to be poetic even in generic circumstances. "House on Fire", for example, has a plodding piano riff and fairly typical chorus build that wouldn't sound out of place when coupled with other current Top 40 pabulum, but the line "Boy I'm gonna drink you in like oxygen, like oxygen / Baby I'm a house on fire / And I wanna keep on burning" is killer on paper, less so in her generic vocal performance. At other points, she has to play the raunchy/club-filling angle, and on the very go-go flavored "Sweet Design", which basically comes off as a raunchier iteration of Amerie's "1 Thing", she starts off by singing "'Thong Song', imma bring the Part Two / G'donk G'donk, imma make you blush, fool" over sample-driven insanity which causes more head-scratching than it does actual booty-shaking.
Yet the contradictions constantly pull us forward, rendering Acting both compelling and frustrating in equal measure. Sometimes, generic lines like "Won't you let me be your rhythm tonight?" get married with spectacular productions, like on the stomping, horn-driven, and vaguely Basement Jaxx-indebted "Move Your Body" (a clear contender for Acting's Highest Honor), which shows Kurstin at the absolute height of his production powers. At other points, the tired chord changes that for the basis of downtempo album closer "Space Between" gets the benefit of some truly touching opening lines:
A never-ending sentence in my head
We lay hollow in the emptiness
I'm too tired to push you from the bed
No more fighting, there's no more fighting
There's no more fighting for us
It's a pointed, affecting sentiment that perhaps would have benefited from having a different producer altogether (nice try, Cameron Deyell, but such cold studio treatments fail to capitalize on the magic that Furler and Kurstin have together), but it's not the first time that the album suffers from a bad case of crossed wires, where different producers and even Furler herself have a hard time nailing the exact tone of a song. This is perhaps no better exemplified than on the album's worst track, the Hallmark-ready "Footprints", which tries to be a mid-tempo canticle about commitment but ends up squarely in Natasha Bedingfield territory: forgettable string-laden fluff that comes off as way too earnest, eager to please, and so obsessed with hitting all the right anthemic poses that it forgot to instill itself with any relatable emotion.
Nearly all of the above-mentioned oddities happen in Acting's second half, as if this is where all the miscellaneous oddballs were fit following the album's entire Act 1, which is (in getting back to contradictions) overstuffed with empowerment anthems and they all not only sound great but also manage the rare hat trick of not stepping over each other thematically despite being grouped so tightly together. Opener "Bird Set Free" feels intensely autobiographical for the normally closed-off Furler ("I don't care if I sing off-key / I found myself in my melodies"), while the rousing Adele co-write "Alive" just feels like a bigger hit than it actually is, because when Furler hits that incredible voice-crack right near the end, it's like she has finally finished her evolution from vocalist to songwriter to headlining artist to genuine, A-class diva, radiating otherworldly confidence until she hits a song like "Unstoppable" where, in the chorus, she empowers others by singing "I'm so powerful / I don't need batteries to play" and all you can do in reaction is say "Oh, honey," and shake your head in disappointment.
Yet moments like these don't take away from all of Acting's successes, and at the end of the day, This Is Acting, for all its backstory, rousing highlights, and questionable stylistic choices, actually feels like more of a placeholder than it was probably intended to be, continuing on the radio-ready success of 1000 Forms of Fear but doing very little to push her craft forward outside of exciting productions like "Move Your Body" and emotional breakthroughs like "Space Between". The title This Is Acting is incredibly apt, but for all the characters Furler is intent on playing now that she has the world's spotlight on her, we will always be most compelled during those rare moments when she simply decides to be herself.