Maybe it has something to do with being Australian, but Sia — Sia Kate Isabelle Fuller, to her musically and artistically inclined parents, and to probably the Men At Work frontman who’s her uncle — is not your run-of-the-mill pop star, at least not on this side of the planet. Down under, of course, is famous for doing things upside down, and Sia fits that mold. First off, there’s the fact that she first made her name singing in the first decade of this century for the downtempo British electronic duo Zero 7, who never did that much commercially in the States outside of
the dance charts, but whose albums consistently went gold and frequently Top. 5 in the U.K. Then there’s her videos, which clearly strive for a provocative artistic edge, frequently by depicting Sia as a child or a child as Sia, often clad in fleshtone bodysuits suggesting few clothes are being worn in situations that lots of viewers tend to find extremely creepy. The clip for “Elastic Heart” especially, skirts pedophilia enough to conceivably justify a trigger warning. But above all, she’s a songwriter as much as a singer or performer — and she doesn’t write just for herself, but for a roll call of mostly female superstars (Beyoncé, Rihanna, Britney Spears, Katy Perry, etc.), not to mention lesser lights, up-and-comers and cult acts a few rungs down the pop food chain.
Sia’s had legit solo hits in the U.K. since “Taken For Granted,” which scored big there in 2000, and Australia’s been hospitable to her work at least since “Clap Your Hands,” a decade after that. But until recently, in the U.S., she had really only charted as a guest hook-chanter on songs written or co-written with David Guetta and Flo Rida. That’s all finally changed, or at least started to, with 2014’s “Chandelier,” which swung on the title’s fancy ceiling lamp into the U.S. Top 10, followed soon after by a version of “Elastic Heart” that no longer had The Weeknd or Diplo on it (as did its original mix, from the Hunger Games: Catching Firesoundtrack).
The songs are almost all power ballads, mostly synth-pulsed and frequently vocal-fried
So now — almost two decades after her solo debut, and four after actually even putting out a Best Of album in her homeland — the Aussie electropop sprite is back with her seventh album, and with her profile and name recognition never higher. The set is called This Is Acting and its overriding concept is that almost all its songs were written with other singers in mind, and often pitched at them to no avail.
So, in theory at least, since self-expression was never her point with these lyrics anyway, Sia can “act” rather than being herself. Which may or may not explain all her cracked and hiccup-y post-Alanis/Sinead/Björk vocal tics and stutteringly multitracked mantras everywhere.
Either way, one thing you can do with the album is play a game, trying to figure out which song got pitched to who —perhaps the self-motivational “Unstoppable” was meant for Katy Perry, and the rhythm stomper “Move Your Body” for Shakira and the jock-rockish shouter “Sweet Design” for Demi Lovato, for instance? But for a few of them, at least, Sia has already let that cat out of the bag.
She wrote “Alive” with Adele, and meant it for her; the one about not-being-ready-to-die, “Reaper,” was penned with Kanye West in mind, Sia has explained. “Cheap Thrills,” with a bubblegummy kiddy chorus that’s the most energetic thing on the album was apparently earmarked for Rihanna, and Sia said she wished Adele would also go for the album-opening “Bird Set Free.” “Footprints,” which like “Reaper,” has a tentative island lilt to it (an island with plenty of sand on it, if the lyric’s footprints are a clue), was hopefully going to go to Beyoncé, but didn’t. The songs are almost all power ballads, mostly synth-pulsed and frequently vocal-fried, occasionally dancey and generally seemingly designed to help fans get on with their day and feel better about themselves despite all of life’s obstacles.
Feel free to gauge their usefulness in your own life accordingly—Sia probably meant them to be more about you than about her, anyway. Which is kind of generous, when you think about it.