The concept of Sia‘s new album, This Is Acting, feels like a watershed in the public’s growing awareness of the way pop sausage gets made today: The idea is that every song (save one) was originally meant for another artist, who passed. This gimmick relies on listeners being aware that Sia, 40, is at once the Australian singer who camouflages her face under a shaggy wig and had a global smash with “Chandelier” and the behind-the-scenes songwriter Sia Furler, whose prolific output sparked hits for Rihanna, Kelly Clarkson, Beyoncé, Ne-Yo, etc.
Part of the pleasure of This Is Acting, then, comes from the game of matching songs to their could-have-been singers. The risk is that people will infer that this is the reject pile. Sia’s openness about the songs’ background signals either great confidence that they will overcome that stigma or a cynical assumption that our fascination with celebrity interplay is the most powerful attractor of all. More meta yet, the album opens with “Bird Set Free,” which comes across as a recap of Sia’s career and a manifesto for her self-realization as a songwriter: “I found myself in my melodies … I’ll shout it out like a bird set free.” Pitch Perfect 2 and Rihanna reportedly turned it down; Adele recorded it but ultimately left it and other offerings by Sia off her 25 album.
Along with several other Acting tracks, “Bird” was produced by Greg Kurstin, who also worked on “Hello” and other 25 tunes; it’s underscored by a rolling piano line that would have been at home there. Likewise, Acting‘s first single, “Alive,” was co-written with the British diva and has a similar outsize-chorus catharsis. But it’s a bloodier, more ragged performance than Adele would chance — when Sia hits the high notes, her voice twists like a metal singer’s. This sense of hazard recalls her last album, 1000 Forms of Fear, and the one song here that Sia has said she wrote for herself, “One Million Bullets,” is also reminiscent of that record’s moods. Of the darker songs on Acting, it’s the one you want on repeat.
After a few songs, though, the listener begins to worry that since these tracks were all intended as singles, there will be no relief from huge choruses and banging beats. An electronic-marching-band effect comes like an onslaught in “Move Your Body,” reportedly written for Shakira, overwhelming what could have been a much more sinuous dance track. By the time one gets to “Unstoppable,” which sounds like a Katy Perry reject, Sia’s boast that she’ll never cease sounds more like a threat.The good news is that in the middle, there are two lighter, wittier tunes that Sia has said were meant for Rihanna: “Reaper” (co-penned by Kanye West) and “Cheap Thrills.” The bad news is that with the five songs that follow,This Is Acting actually starts sounding like the scrap heap. Sia has admitted with refreshing honesty that she writes songs by playing Mad Libs with lists of phrases she stores on her phone; the worst case here is “House on Fire,” in which she sings, “I’m a house on fire, and I want to keep burning,” over what sounds like bad video-game music.
Despite a few highlights, This Is Acting is scattered and forgettable next to the emotional 1000 Forms of Fear. Yes, Sia is upfront that it’s more impersonal. It’s all part of the concept, but that is no excuse; David Bowie‘s recent death reminded us how theatrical and constructed pop can be without turning glib. Sia has been an intriguing enough figure in music that it’s a letdown to hear her do hack work. That isn’t acting — it’s just affectation.
This story originally appeared in the Feb. 6 issue of Billboard.