Wednesday, July 9, 2014

album review: '1000 forms of fear' by sia

The more I think about it, the less I think anyone should be surprised that Sia's career trajectory went the way it did.

See, while the mainstream likely became acquainted with Sia thanks to her appearances on Flo Rida's 'Wild Ones' or David Guetta's 'Titanium' or from the noted songwriting credits she has scattered across the pop landscape over the past few years, Sia has been around a fair bit longer in the indie pop scene with a selection of albums that were reasonably well-received, if not exactly critically acclaimed. Her original selection of material started in the vein of downtempo R&B, which was a brilliant fit for her solid melodic composition, emotive delivery, and underwritten songs that worked more on emotive presence than on lyrical description. Those of you who have a grasp on my personal taste likely think the latter would mean I was never really a huge fan of hers, but that material worked for me in the same way I liked Rhye - it was subtle, it was understated, and it was powerfully vulnerable.

And yet Sia didn't stay in that vein, as she gradually began pushing her sound towards more of the quirky, flashy, borderline twee side of indie pop that I have a hard time liking. There was some of the subversive darkness in her lyrics, to be sure, but it wasn't always as much of a good fit for her new sound, especially when it came to the poetry. What it was a solid fit for was the rise of bombastic, EDM-flavoured pop in the vein of David Guetta, which didn't rely as much on lyrics as it did raw feeling and emotive presence. And sure, Sia had this, but with the underwritten lyrics, the thinner emotional framework, and her tendency to work with producers and artists who couldn't match her level of subtlety and expressiveness. On top of that, you could always recognize a song written by Sia from another artist, and while Sia could make her brand of songwriting work for her fairly consistently, it didn't exactly translate for singers like Rihanna nearly as well.

But oddly, the prospect of the flash of fame was something that Sia found profoundly uncomfortable, leading to drug and alcohol abuse and nearly a suicide attempt. Instead, she focused on writing songs for other people and only signed with RCA on the condition she didn't have to tour or do any press appearances, which led to this album, 1000 Forms Of Fear. And even though I wasn't the biggest fan of Sia, I knew her brand of confessional songwriting would likely make for some interesting music given her experiences. So, what did I discover?

Okay, this is a bit of an odd case, because it involves something that I don't normally talk about when I discuss pop music: lyrical restraint. Because while I have issues with this album with regards to production and vocals, my biggest issue falls into this category and it makes what could have been a pretty solid pop album significantly harder for me to like. As it is, Sia's 1000 Forms Of Fear is alright for what it's trying to be, but it also shows an artist caught between two worlds and which gives this album a distinctive, awkward feeling to me all around.

Let me explain with the most simple case first: the instrumentation and production. The major of the production was handled by Greg Kurstin on this album, who has been making a name for himself over the past few years with a certain percussion-heavy, booming production, most notably for me on Lykke Li's album I Never Learn which at first seems to share a lot in common musically with this record: echoing, booming production with an excess of keyboards, vocalists with slightly unconventional voices and a natural gift for melody, and overall a sonic palette that can come across as astoundingly bleak. And for the most part, it really fits the dramatic lyrical themes Sia's approaching with this album - but at the same time, it doesn't stick with me nearly as well. And unfortunately, the reason is fairly simple: the production balance is, once again, skewed so heavily in favour of percussion over melody that what used to be one of Sia's strongest assets is frequently muted or downplayed. Which is a damn shame, because there are some strong melodies on this record: the piano lines on 'Big Girls Cry', 'Dressed In Black', and 'Straight For The Knife' both stand out, and I do think that some of the strings arrangements are promising, like on 'Cellophane' and 'Fair Game', but the percussion and heavy reverb is always the main focus. And it doesn't help matters that some of the melodies she does provide aren't exactly all that original - 'Hostage' is probably the track most reminiscent of Sia's last album, and I could swear that melody reminds me of a pop-country song from the mid-90s, and 'Fire Meets Gasoline''s chorus sounds distressingly like Beyonce's 'Halo'.

Now, granted, most of the driving melodies of these songs are compensated for by Sia's multi-tracked vocals, of which I can confidently say you're not going to hear many people like her on pop radio. Her voice is naturally powerful and is capable to showing a lot of dramatic emotion... but at the same time, I'm not sure this brand of pop vocals plays to her strengths. The thing is that Sia is capable of vocals that are very subtle and raw - and this record does not do subtle. And sure, pop music doesn't have to be subtle, but you can tell Sia is pushing her vocals to the absolute limit and there are points where she is definitely oversinging to the point where voice cracks and goes off-tune and it comes across as unnecessarily exaggerated. And that's not even touching on whenever pitch correction comes in, and it sounds plastered on and really unflattering.

The one emotion that definitely springs to mind when hearing this record is 'discomfort' - and to be fair, I get the feeling that might have been somewhat of the point, as a fair few of these songs directly address her issues with fame and being that pop star figure. 'Chandelier', for instance, is a harrowing song about the party girl losing control, and 'Cellophane' and 'Dressed In Black' both directly confront her issues with identity and her struggles with suicidal thoughts. But really, most of this album falls into the realm of Sia's typical pop songs: vulnerable songs about relationships in trouble or broken, self-esteem anthems, and even a few of Sia's unconventional brand of sex jams like on 'Eye Of The Needle' and 'Free The Animal'. Hell, 'Straight For The Knife' plays almost like a straight-up noir murder ballad in the vein of a Lana Del Rey song done right. Granted, I still prefer Sharon Van Etten's 'Your Love Is Killing Me' for this sort of material, but it's a close second.

But here's where we run into my big issue with this album: even for pop music, there's absolutely no lyrical restraint on this record. The metaphors are big and broad, the symbolism is vividly sketched, and it's very clear large chunks of this album aren't to be taken literally, and thankfully, Sia has the soul and power in her vocals and instrumentation to mostly back it up. But there are many, many points where the lyrics and poetry on this record get hyperbolic, where the language is so overheated and overwrought that it starts getting hard to take seriously. 'Hostage' takes a lot of prisoner description for heated passion, and it starts looking less like love and more like Stockholm's Syndrome, and 'Fire Meet Gasoline' is positively pyrotechnic. But the worst example is 'Free The Animal' - and yes, I get the point of the language to capture those extreme feelings, but when your chorus goes 'Detonate me / shoot me like a cannonball / Granulate me / kill me like an animal / decapitate me / hit me like a baseball / Emancipate me / free the animal', it's so hyperbolic that I just can't buy into it. As I said, there's little subtlety on this record, and while pop music can work by going broad, this is so hyperbolic that I can't connect with it whatsoever. And the disconnect between Sia's very human, impassioned delivery and the over-the-top lyrics completely shoves me out of the music. And if it was trying to be silly, it could work, but Sia's playing it very straight, and with a record like this, you run into the worst possible result: the exaggeration ends up becoming mundane by the end, and the lack of real colour in the production only emphasizes that further.

In the end, this record feels like the worst possible step for Sia and her songwriting: overwrought and desperately hammering for drama to the point of almost self-parody. Which really is quite sad because Sia does not need to overstretch herself like this. Some have made the argument that Sia has spent so much time writing pop music for other people that she no longer knows how to write for herself, but I don't quite buy that. Hell, there are moments like 'Big Girls Cry' and 'Straight For The Knife' where I see shots of that nuance that used to define her work - but for most of this album, Sia broadens her style both in vocal delivery and  so widely that the individual spark and flavour that used to define her material seems a lot weaker, and the more conventional production and instrumentation really doesn't help change that. And even she doesn't sound all that comfortable with it. So for me, it's a 5/10, and I can't really recommend this album. If you're interested, check out her earlier records, but this record sounds compromised to me, and that's the last thing I want to see on records showing this much raw emotion.

1 comment:

  1. I can see why you didn't like it. I'd never listened to Sia before I heard this album. Having listened to her earlier work, there was clearly a shift made. I can also see the parallels with I Never Learn, but I thought that record had far more reverb issues and decent lyrics don't necessarily make for songs that are all that good as music; Li's more of a singles artist. In this case I stand by my opinion that this is the best pop album of the year and should get that top spot on the Billboard 200. Feel free to check out my review of it on my blog.