“1,000 Forms of Fear” by Sia

Sia’s latest album, This Is Acting, was done in by a horribly misconceived concept, and it produced one of the worst hit singles of 2016, “Cheap Thrills”, which made Number One on the charts for the three weeks despite the fact that virtually no-one would admit to liking it. So I thought that, instead of reviewing that album, I would shine a light on some of Sia’s earlier, better music. I just really feel the need to remind people that Sia is, in fact, still capable of artistically valid and important work…yes, even in the heart of her ‘Pop’ phase.

This album did have its detractors, but that’s mostly because it was such a deliberately aggressive and abrasive record…one that is definitely not designed to be easy to listen to. The music is very much in the style of mainstream Party-Pop, only with the intensity cranked up to frighteningly manic levels, and with some deeply disturbing lyrical content.

Despite Sia’s Indie-Pop fanbase largely turning on her after she went mainstream, this album still has a definite Indie-Pop vibe to it. Sia went from being completely outside the mainstream Pop genre (in her early work) to using it more or less conventionally (in “Titanium”, “Wild Ones” and her various behind-the-scenes songwriting contributions) to subverting it, using the conventions of Pop music to comment on the genre and the culture that surrounds it.

The goal of this subversive commentary is to unmask the anguish and desperation underneath modern Pop music’s upbeat facade, to question the reasons why it feels the need to submerge itself so deeply in hedonistic celebration. The lyrics on this album are seriously some of the most disturbing you’ll ever hear on a mainstream Pop album (example: ‘Just blow me up or run me down or cut my throat/And when it’s time for you to die/I’ll let you know’). They deal mostly with the album’s core theme, revealing the secret despair and self-loathing behind stereotypical party girls, but there are a few twistedly dysfunctional love songs (one of Sia’s trademark specialties as a songwriter since her Indie Pop days) thrown in for good measure.

Sia’s vocals alternate between murmurs or wails, with little space in between, and are drenched in auto-tune to further the invocation of the archetypical sounds of modern Pop. In fact, as disturbing as the songwriting on this album is, the most unsettling thing about listening to it might be Sia’s performance. It’s common knowledge that Sia has some pretty serious neuroses of her own in real life, and it sounds like she’s channeling all of them into her delivery here. The result is a devastatingly vulnerable explosion of emotional agony that sounds uncomfortably like this isn’t acting…like she really is feeling all of the pain she’s expressing.

About the only thing on this album to be remotely Pop-friendly in the conventional sense was the album’s second hit, “Elastic Heart”, which sounds rather like a much more intense version of Ellie Goulding’s output. However, the biggest hit from the album was much more typical of its sound…the epic anti-party anthem “Chandelier”. It’s kind of astounding that this song was as successful as it was, given that it’s almost the antithesis of a typical Pop hit in sound and feel. Not that I’m complaining, of course…it’s a fantastic song, arguably the highlight of the album, and it did a lot to spice up an otherwise boring year in Pop music.

Like I said, this is not meant to be a ‘fun’ album, and if you don’t have much tolerance for emotionally exhausting, almost expressionistic art, you probably won’t enjoy it. But it is nonetheless one of Sia’s most magnificent achievements, and for those of us with a taste for ‘difficult’ music, it stands with the best work of her career. This Is Acting consisted of Sia doing impressions of other people, as indeed most of her behind-the-scenes writing does, but this album sings with an utterly unique voice that has never been heard from anyone else. I can’t really say for sure if her latest efforts indicate that Sia has ‘sold out’, but after hearing this album, I wouldn’t be quick to jump to that conclusion if I were you.

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