Adele really blew it. That might be hard to believe with 15 million copies of 25 sold across the globe in just over two months, but the megastar let two of Sia Furler’s most bombastic and brilliant songs slip through her hands. Both kicked loose on Sia’s epically strange Saturday Night Live performance last November: the piano-driven “Bird Set Free” and pulsating battle cry of “Alive” (on which the British songstress shares a songwriting credit, along with Tobias Jesso Jr.). The songs reach for the rafters and end up in another galaxy instead. Half the tracks on 25 turn pallid when stacked against the pair, both of which recall the soul-gripping “Rolling in the Deep” — and we all know how that little ditty turned out.
Why Adele chose to chuck the songs may remain a mystery. Fortunately, Sia salvaged the songs from the garbage bin for her seventh studio release. Strangely, so many of the in-demand Aussie songwriter’s compositions got discarded by today’s Top 40 A-listers that she reached into that overcrowded dumpster and decided to make an album of nothing but rejects. A goofy premise for sure, but when you’re writing hits like the trance-like “Diamonds” for Rihanna in 14 minutes flat, there’s probably more quality material than divas to go around.
Unlike her brashly honest and personal 2014 breakthrough 1000 Forms of Fear, which yielded the glitter-and-guts Grammy-nominated “Chandelier”, This Is Acting partially concedes to emotional detachment. The title itself is a nod to Sia’s exercise of crawling into the skin of the artist she’s writing for as a hired hand. This pretending, or acting, allows the song to resonate with the pop darling in question while nabbing Sia a fat paycheck. Her eerie ability to tap into the essence of Beyoncé or Katy Perry makes the game of guessing which star she was shooting for super easy.
The “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You”-esque tribal beats of “Move Your Body” point a seductive finger to Shakira. She even curls her voice to resemble the Colombian hip-shaker. It’s not hard to imagine Queen B’s wind-blown tresses swaying in time to “Footprints”. Maybe the lyrics — familiar to any rosary-carrying Catholic — were a hard sell: “I saw only two footprints in the sand/ Thought you’d abandoned me/ Let go of my hand, but you were carrying me/ Carrying me to safety.” Surely Christian radio needs hits, too.
The forceful, stomping “Unstoppable” seems tailor-made for Rihanna, with its sassy declaration of empowerment and fast and furious automobile imagery: “I’m unstoppable/ I’m a Porsche with no brakes/ I’m invincible/ Yeah, I win every single game.” Party anthem “Cheap Thrills”, with its marching band drums filtered through a robotic merengue thump, also fits RiRi like a bedazzled glove. The swift build-up to a full-throttle chorus defines Sia (as well as her durable foils Greg Kurstin and Chris Braide) and pays off as often as Michael Jordan in the ‘90s.
It’s easy to brush off what she’s doing or call it formulaic. Even Sia sometimes rolls her eyes at her own pop music output, telling Rolling Stone she considers past successes like “Titanium” and “Wild Ones” “terribly, terribly cheesy.” But a good, smart pop song is no joke. Simplicity isn’t the enemy. And while Sia’s lines wear a badge of effortlessness, her ripe voice lends gravitas to these “victim to victory” ballads (as the notoriously media-shy singer characterized them to the New York Times in a rare sit-down).
An idiosyncratic belter, Sia sings without manners. She summarizes her aesthetic perfectly on “Bird Set Free”: “And I don’t care if I sing off key/ I find myself in my melodies/ I sing for love, I sing for me/ I shout it out like a bird set free.” The feverish way she contorts her voice will either clutch your heart in a death grip or soothe a taxed psyche. More impressively, she conveys liberty, stamina, agony, yearning, and devotion without the crutch of language.
“One Million Bullets”, the album’s only selection considered too precious by the singer to pitch to others, finds her voice ripping at the seams in pledging complete fidelity to a lover by swearing she’d stand on the other side of a loaded weapon to protect their union. Then, faster than a bullet can leave the gun’s barrel, she sheds the cocky stance to meekly purr, “How many would you take?” It’s a welcome vulnerable moment on an album filled with riveting pomp and circumstance.
Essential Tracks: “Bird Set Free”, “Alive”