By now, most people know 40-year-old Sia Furler as the crazy-haired Australian pop star who refuses to show her face on television by wearing ridiculously big, blonde wigs. What most people do not know, however, is that she has written songs for some of the biggest pop stars of the modern era, including—just to name a few—Adele, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Britney Spears, Katy Perry and Christina Aguilera.
Impossibly, Sia has managed to procure an entire album of rejects from writing for these A-List artists, yet these songs are not just bad demos or B-sides; they’re bonafide hits. Instead of letting them fade into obscurity, Sia has managed to craft from them a largely cohesive record, which critiques the complicated relationship between the artistic and manufactured qualities of pop music today.
In a rather revealing interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Sia commented on this paradigm as she described her work in the industry: “But I still believe I’m straddling the line between art and commerce, but I think that my visual work is art and my music is definitely commercial. I think I managed to trick people a little bit into thinking I’m more arty by making creative, artistic, visual work and applying it to commercial music. Maybe. I don’t know.”
The resulting “This Is Acting,” released on Jan. 29, challenges the listener in the most peculiar of ways by asking the listener to take its 12 tracks completely seriously, despite the fact the album itself refuses to do the same at certain points. Sia’s seventh studio album opens dramatically with two rejects from British songstress supreme Adele. The uplifting “Bird Set Free” sees Sia resolving to soldier on despite the challenges she faces amidst a rather pleasant melody built around piano. “Alive,” the lead single for the album, echoes many sentiments of the previous track but features explosive drums and a more unhinged vocal from Sia a la 2014’s megahit “Chandelier.”
Of all the songs on the LP, “One Million Bullets” is the only song Sia kept for herself, even referring to the track as “[her] baby” in the aforementioned Rolling Stone interview. The track mines much of the same territory as previous Sia singles with lyrics that reflect her inherent oddities (“If you were a poet, and I was a faultless muse / If you were the hero, yeah, I’d take a bullet for you”) and morbid tendencies (“I’d give my life for one of your belly laughs”).
From here, “This Is Acting” takes a more lighthearted turn with a series of roaring uptempo numbers. “Move Your Body” is an uncanny impression of a Shakira tune, though it ultimately does little to distinguish itself from Sia’s other excellent dance anthems such as “Titanium” (2011). “Unstoppable” bares resemblance to a generic Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry anthem, but the chorus packs such as wallop that it’s hard not to believe Sia when she belts, “I’m so confident, yeah, I’m unstoppable today.”
The real stars of “This Is Acting” come in the form of Rihanna rejects “Cheap Thrills” and “Reaper,” which are high octane pop at its finest. At another point in Rihanna’s career, “Cheap Thrills” would have easily been another number one single as the carefree, tropical banger refuses to let its listeners come down from its sugary high. In other hands, the Kanye West-produced “Reaper” would have sounded much less convincing given Sia’s cheery delivery when she sings something as serious as “You came to take me away / So close I was to heaven’s gates.”
After a largely successful run, the record loses its footing here with songs such as “Footprints” and “Broken Glass” demonstrating that not all trash can be turned into treasure. Both songs are plagued by clichéd lyrics and unoriginal song structures, with the latter even containing the line, “But our love’s not worth playing chicken with.” In short, this is quite the step down for the woman who once turned a deadly tale about alcoholism into a soaring anthem for mass consumption.
“This Is Acting” provides interesting insights into how the pop music industry currently operates, and, if nothing else, the album serves as a fun game for listeners to guess which artist a song was originally meant for. While nothing on the record comes close to matching the emotional high points of her last studio album “1000 Forms of Fear” (2014), Sia has once more proven her acumen at both songwriting and being a pop star when some artists cannot even properly succeed at either.