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Review: Sia Escapes Herself a Little Too Well on ‘This Is Acting’

Sia at A+E Networks "Shining A Light" Concert
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 18: Recording artist Sia performs onstage at A+E Networks "Shining A Light" concert at The Shrine Auditorium on November 18, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for A+E Networks)
SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: January 29, 2016
Label: Inertia / Monkey Puzzle / RCA

One of the most revelatory treasures of prolific hitmaker/singer/performing wig Sia Furler is her Genius annotation for her most ubiquitous Top 40 tour de force, “Chandelier.” Among the self-jibes is a knowing explanation of the track’s lyric “I’m gonna live like tomorrow doesn’t exist” — with self-lacerating comedic flair, she comments, “I’ve written this lyric or something like it into at least 40 songs in the last year.” Writing for others and repackaging her most dramatic life experiences has become Sia’s bread and butter. Like any artist proud of their own endeavors, she has a waste-not-want-not ethos. Hence her seventh album, This Is Acting, is a collection of cast-offs penned for some of her biggest clients  Beyoncé, Rihanna, Adele  but reclaimed for her own bold interpretation.

Where Sia’s previous 1000 Forms of Fear was a pragmatic move to free her from a publishing deal, This Is Acting is a more curious entity: Call it a Greatest Unclaimed Hits album. It doubles as a fun guessing game for any wannabe A&R, a fascinating insight into the business of pop: What do Bey and Ri’s forthcoming albums not sound like? Why didn’t Adele keep lead single “Alive” for 25? Co-written by Ms. Adkins herself with Sia and budding piano man Tobias Jesso Jr., perhaps the line “I saw my life in a stranger’s face / And it was mine” would have made Adele sound ungrateful. From Sia’s lips it sounds cryptically self-effacing. Sia isn’t so much a recording artist, she’s a recording art movement, dabbling in pop deconstructionism. By day, she is a guiding force for more extroverted major-label superstars; by night she’s defying their existence by singing the same songs in a way the commercial landscape never realized it was ready for.

But the issue with these performances is that Sia herself intentionally remains detached. In “acting” out the parts of those she had in mind for these 12 songs, Sia conveys her melancholic themes of survival via thunderous soul vocals (“Alive,” “One Million Bullets”), arena-pop choruses (“Unstoppable,” “House on Fire,” “Footprints”), and hard hip-hop beats (“Move Your Body”) while insisting she’s playing the role of another. The songs exist in limbo; their writer doesn’t give them full ownership in the absence of a superstar brave enough to undertake themes of struggle and depression. “Sia” has almost become a pseudonym for Furler, minus the creation of an alternative persona to inhabit the works. Take the Kanye-produced “Reaper” and Major Lazer-esque party anthem “Cheap Thrills,” both intended for Rihanna. Sia relishes re-imagining herself as Queen Rih, her voice as flawless as an Olympic gymnast, twisting and tumbling across an entire mat of stylistic possibilities. But when she sings, “Baby, I don’t need dollar bills to have fun tonight,” it lacks the authoritative impact and zero-f**ks schtick that the real RiRi’s vocal inflections would have brought to it.

Despite being so joyously engulfed by Sia’s voice, the songs come over as dispossessed orphans, all a variation on that same theme of being lost and held down by overbearing powers and temptations. “Bird Set Free,” sees the singer repeatedly protest, “I don’t wanna die” in a too-familiar manner where it might have sounded thrilling and revelatory from someone else. When she declares, “I don’t care if I sing off-key / I found myself in my melodies,” it reads like old news. And “Alive” too, while undeniably tumultuous, feels like Sia’s pushing her already-told story away from her body, physically emancipating herself of her brilliant work rather than embracing it. Without the vehicle of a superstar to empower, there is no host titanic enough for Sia’s demons to possess. Perhaps it says more about the pop industry than it does about Sia that the pieces of This Is Acting wound up on the cutting-room floor.