In fact, she’s had several moments, albeit largely writing for others. Last year’s ‘1000 Forms Of Fear’ marked the moment that Sia finally became a fully-fledged popstar in her own right, bringing her huge success with the cataclysmic Chandelier. Stretching that into another album, though, is a step too far.
Of course, songwriting is tough business. For every hit, there are hundreds of rejected songs cast aside. For many, that’s where they should stay. But when ‘This Is Acting’ consists of songs rejected by other artists, you have to ask: why? Why were they rejected? And why release them?
The simplest pleasure from ‘This Is Acting’ is playing ‘guess the popstar’. It’s well documented that Alive, for instance, was written with Adele in mind (she even has a writing credit) and her voice certainly could’ve leant some needed weight to the belted chorus. Elsewhere the Latino dance rhythms of Move Your Body were probably written for Shakira; the laidback feel of Reaper and the reggae beats of Cheap Thrills are clearly aimed at Rihanna; and only Beyoncé could pull off power ballad Footprints. Listening through is a bit like a musical puzzle.
It also provides some insight into the workings of Sia as a songwriter. Dealing strictly with pop structures, it’s easy to pick out key Sia tropes: from the soaring melodies, to the repeated lyrical earworms, the chorus reprise with reduced production, and the general sense of melodrama. Sia’s not known for her subtlety and ‘This Is Acting’ is as relentless as you’d expect. The problem is that her formula gets tired quickly. Nestled amongst other songs, a Sia banger can do wonders for a popstar, but a whole album’s worth becomes overly repetitive. This is common denominator manufactured pop that spans an awkward line between Sia’s distinct characteristics and the personalities of other artists. The title really is apt. And where Sia keeps bringing the same sorts of songs, it's understandable that popstars would want something fresh and novel instead.
The other major issue is Sia’s grating vocal. “I’ll shout it out like a bird set free”, she squawks on the opening track and that continues throughout the album. Alternating between mumbling and shouting, her voice cracks painfully on the higher notes of Alive (this is probably for purposeful, ironic effect on the lines “I’m still breathing”), it has a weird vibrato thing on One Million Bullets, and on the whole is as likeable as marmite.
With Sweet Design, she finally breaks the mould with a choppy hip-hop track that references Sisqo’s Thong Song. It’s out of character for her, but finally brings something a little different, proving what Sia can achieve when she steps out of her box. Yet that happens too infrequently, leaving us with an album that confirms you can have too much of a good thing. Sia’s moment has passed, so let’s leave her swinging from the chandelier where she belongs.
* Move Your Body
* Sweet Design
Listen: ‘This Is Acting’ is out now.