1000 Forms Of Fear, Sia’s last chart-topping album, was the accidental hit the artist had originally released as a means of being freed from her record deal. But if that surprise smash convinced her to stay in the game, then This is Acting is the sound of her doubling down on a solo career she had previously considered abandoning. There’s a clear theme here, and it’s emancipation—from fear, from doubt, and most of all, from feeling as though she wasn’t meant to be a star. Gone is the uncertainty that still clung to many of her earlier efforts at mainstream pop hits of her own; success has granted her the confidence to dive into the deep end of the mainstream music pool, and the results are potent.
Sia Furler has made a splashy and lucrative career out of penning hits for others, and Sia the solo artist doesn’t shy away from the accessible tendencies she imbued while crafting tunes for other voices. Her new album is a jukebox full of potential pop hits, each one sounding like it’s just waiting for another female pop star to take a crack at it. But what coheres the album into a singular whole is the force of Sia’s personality, a newly discovered talent for playing the part of an empowering diva. (Hence the title.) Instead of sounding like a medley of contemporary pop meant for others, her confidence yokes these varying singles to an impassioned foundation, granting the project weight and resonance.
Still, it’s fun to ask, “Which pop star would match this?” with these songs, as each one highlights a different aspect of Sia’s personality, showcasing the affinity for embodying various perspectives that has served her songwriting career so well. Single “Alive” was co-written with Adele and originally intended for the multiplatinum star, and it shows: Singing of endurance and survival that turns to longing and hope, it’s a mammoth anthem, with a refrain that pushes the needle into the red. “I’m alive,” she cries, practically going hoarse holding the notes on that chorus. Opener “Bird Set Free” is the best female empowerment sing-along Katy Perry never wrote. “Footprints” sounds like it was earmarked for Rihanna, and so on. This isn’t a criticism or accusation of Sia being a derivative artist—if anything, it shows just how much her musical chops have set the bar for contemporary pop.
Not every attempt to swing for the fences pans out, however, and at times the constant bombast and over-the-top production values don’t quite hit their marks. Surprisingly, it’s the Kanye West-produced track, “Reaper,” that feels the most like a retread. Featuring church organs and a slinky, stutter-step beat, the song finds Sia announcing her refusal of the depression and suicidal impulses she struggled with in the past. It’s arguably the artist at her most vulnerable on the album as a whole, but sonically, it stands out the least. “Move Your Body,” her attempt at a straight-up Europop dance-floor jam, similarly suffers from a lack of distinction. It’s an obvious play for a club hit, but it feels a bit predictable and safe—enjoyable, yes, but so calculated as to be stripped of any sense of engagement, like Robyn on autopilot.
Still, these are minor quibbles with a record that overwhelmingly delivers big beats and shout-along choruses straight to the brain’s pleasure center. It’s been exciting to watch Sia slowly grow into her own as a solo artist, and now that she feels more comfortable in her own skin, the pop music she so effortlessly channels for other artists is getting equally fused with a sensibility wholly her own. Nowhere is this clearer than on “Sweet Design,” a thunderously frenetic hip-hop-infused jam so delectable and drum-sample-heavy it would make Missy Elliott drool with envy. This is the sound of Sia, international pop star with no more personal demons holding her back, and it’s a beautiful noise.