Monday, February 1, 2016

Music Review: Sia - This is Acting

Sia's latest album This is Acting doesn't quite have the epic, deeply personal quality of its predecessor 1000 Forms of Fear (which I consider the best album of 2014), but this collection of songs written for other artists does illustrate how gifted she is at crafting pop tunes.  Not only that, but her incredibly powerful, emotive vocals make even the cheesier songs ring true with a sense of world-weary maturity the intended artists probably would've lacked.

The first two songs were originally to be included on Adele's new album 25 (Adele had been suffering from writer's block for months before finally turning these songs down), and one can easily hear Adele singing them.  The simple but commanding "Bird Set Free" is reminiscent of Sia's previous song "Dressed in Black," with a similar chord progression but more melanchony tone, until the triumphant, instantly hooky chorus.  This is one of the album's standouts.  The other would-be Adele hit is "Alive," which features a soaring Adele-esque refrain but also some of Sia's rapid-fire rhythmic lyrics in the bridge.  Both songs take on an anthemic quality (Sia excels at imbuing her songs with universality).

Other standouts include yet another anthem, the exultant "Unstoppable," which would fit right in as an athletic fight song; a pair of Latin-beat dance numbers called "Move Your Body" and "Cheap Thrills," both of which are far better than they have any right to be; and the quirky bonus track "Summer Rain," which recalls some of her alt-pop work on We Are Born.

Overall I enjoy the first half of the album better than the second.  It could be because the songs don't quite have the depth of her previous albums given that she didn't write them for herself.  So it's a bit of a "diminishing returns" situation I suppose.  Her previous three albums had such a feeling of intimacy (and were all totally different stylistically), even on explosive power ballads like "Chandelier" and "Eye of the Needle;" Sia was clearly pouring out her soul on those songs, whereas many of these tracks feel a bit like exercises in hit-making.

The album title of course implies putting oneself in another's headspace while singing these songs, and despite a reduced personal connection Sia certainly does an admirable job of making us believe she means every word.  From a lesser vocalist/songwriter much of this album would be paint-by-numbers, but she adds her unique touch and delivery, so even the weaker tracks have a lot going for them.

This is Acting is most definitely a worthwhile listen.  It fails to reach the heights of 1000 Forms (Understandable given what a career apex that album is), but contains quite a few memorable, hooky pop songs.  Sia is exceptionally skilled at writing tunes loved by both the critics and the radio, and there's no shortage of those on This is Acting.  But now that she's fully accepted her considerable success as a pop star I'm just looking forward to the next record written specifically for herself.

I give the album ***1/2 out of *****

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