Much like Miss Furler herself, there’s something about This Is Acting that feels a little … off. Not content with writing and producing for some of the biggest stars in the world, Sia decided she wanted to be one of them, but without the excess of baggage of being readily recognisable, unless you have access to Google Image Search, where there’s all those countless years of Sia being photographed before face covering wigs became as iconic and instantly recognisable to her as Madonna’s cone-bra.
This Is Acting is almost entirely a collection of songs intended for other artists, who ultimately rejected them, and in finding new depths of recycling Sia has taken them all and repackaged them for herself. What we have now feels like a conveyor belt of pre-packaged hits, which work out with varying degrees of success, depending on how far out of her comfort zone Sia travels.
Kicking off with two tracks initially set for 25, both ‘Bird Set Free’ and ‘Alive’ could’ve helped liven up Adele’s very MOR album, but both are immediately shown up by ‘One Million Bullets’, the one song on This Is Acting that Sia wrote for herself. Her delivery has always been unique and interesting to listen to, matching Katy Perry’s poptastic set of lungs with Bjork’s experimental edges, with those powerful, roaring choruses emotionally crashing against her voice cracking at just the right moment. Later tracks like ‘Unstoppable’, ‘Broken Glass’ and ‘Space Between’, just about all of which were produced by either of Furler’s go-to guys, Greg Kurstin and Jesse Shatkin, are also top-end of the quality scale, but after half-an-album’s worth of them, they do start to sound very similar.
After years of ‘Diamonds’, ‘Cannonballs’ and ‘Chandelier”s, we’ve known for a while that Sia knows her way around a power-ballad. When the BPM jumps up, then it’s clear she’s in murkier territory. Furler tried (and mostly failed) to write sexy and flirty for Kylie’s Kiss Me Once album, and added some of the lesser cuts to recent Jennifer Lopez and Cheryl Cole efforts. Sure, she can come up with killer hooks on dance songs when other people put in most of the hard work – ‘Titanium’, ‘Wild Ones’, ‘Bang My Head’ – but it’s not exactly her strong suit.
That’s painfully evident on ‘Reaper’, a Kanye West co-production that was intended for Rihanna’s Anti album, that just plods along on a do-nothing beat that sounds like it was a demo version of ‘FourFiveSeconds’ in a past life. Same goes with ‘House On Fire’, co-written with fun.’s Jack Antonoff, which unfortunately just sounds like three busy songs being played at once and Sia attempting to shout over all of them.
Not all of the energetic tracks fail, though. ‘Move Your Body’ – so painfully intended for Shakira that you’ll swear that’s her chanting on the chorus – is still a pretty fun hip-shaker, ‘Cheap Thrills’ (another Rihanna rejection) is a mid-tempo banger about getting way too drunk on way too little money (something Rihanna hasn’t known about for over a decade), and ‘Sweet Design’ seems to be composed entirely on ‘90s R’n’B samples, pounding the 808 out between collapsing hand claps and erratic horn sections. Basically, Demi Lovato would’ve killed for this.
Or Selena Gomez. Or Ariana Grande. And that’s the biggest problem with This Is Acting; while embracing that these songs weren’t written for her, all we can do is listen to Sia and dream of the intended end product, or think of any other number of artists this could’ve landed with instead. There’s no sense of identity, and while most of these songs are good, and some of them are even pretty great, some should’ve stayed on the dump – ‘Reaper’ for one, or ‘Footprints’, which Beyonce correctly turned down two years ago in favour of ‘Pretty Hurts’ – and Sia shouldn’t be making a campaign out of turning every song she’s ever written into a hit.
Every singer, writer and producer has an off day. Thankfully, Sia has had fewer than most, but let’s hope for her next album, she’s thinking more about herself and less about what to do with her songs if someone says no to them.