Monday, February 8, 2016

album review: 'this is acting' by sia

Let's talk briefly about being a pop songwriter.

Now I've said in the past - hell, I did an entire Special Comment on it - that being a pop songwriter is arguably even harder. Let's be honest, you can write anything in the indie scene and some hipster somewhere will declare it a work of absolute genius - working within the pop framework is trickier, walking that tightrope between popular appeal with a hook and conventional structure and those sparks of individuality that make you a unique artist. And that's when you're writing for yourself - writing for another artist is often even harder, because while you want some of your personality to come through in the composition, you also need to consider the strengths and weaknesses and unique character of that performer too.

And yet whenever I hear a pop song written by Sia Furler, former indie pop darling turned songwriter and pop star in her own right, it's hard not hear Sia's unique tone and personality ring through in the writing. And in a sense that's a good thing: even though I have my issues with Sia's underwritten style and hyperbolic imagery and the tip away from more complex material that's occurred since her early work, she does have a defiantly unique voice in her writing. The problem becomes that said voice is often matched by her voice-shredding vocals to elevate the material - she's the one who sounds best on her own material.

Where things get interesting is that other artists appear to have recognized this, and for one reason or another a fair few of Sia's tracks have been rejected by artists over the past while, even with her writing her most pop-centric tracks to date. So in a fit of inspiration, Sia decided to pull all of these tracks together and release them as her own, putting her own spin on her attempts to match the style of others. Okay, nifty concept, I'm intrigued - so what does Sia deliver?

Okay, let's get this out of the way first, in case you haven't seen my review for the first time I covered a Sia album: I've generally not been a huge fan of her shift towards the mainstream, I preferred her more intimate indie pop that felt like a better fit for her unique voice, and I think 1000 Forms Of Fear suffered by going too broad and monochromatic with its production. That says, while there are some sonic parallels between that album and This Is Acting, I do find it a more diverse affair. But at the end of the day, this is effectively a record of rejects and b-sides, filler material that wasn't good enough to make the albums of their prospective artists - and it definitely has that feel in the writing, even if Sia's performance can sometimes redeem it. In other words, it's more haphazard than her 2014 release across the board, and while it does hit bigger highs, I'm not sure it's better, mostly because the lows are also significantly deeper.

So let's start off in the instrumentation and production, where the most notable shifts and differences are - as you'd expect, given that the sound that Sia tries to write for Adele is very different than what she writes for Rihanna or Demi Lovato. And unfortunately, a fair chunk of it is dominated by what one would considered Sia's brand of production: much thicker and heavier percussion coming at the expense of any actual melody, instead relying on Sia's huge vocals to match the instrumentals. And I'll reiterate my criticism for that sort of production - people remember melodic hooks when they're mirrored in the instrumentation, and while this record is marginally better for showcasing them - the strings and piano are audible on 'A Bird Set Free', 'Footprints' and 'Alive' - the latter probably featuring the best possible balance, especially on the hook - it's hard not for some of these tracks to blend together, especially considering how desaturated and drained of deeper colour these tracks are, with flat buzzy synths or faded pianos, orchestral swells that never really pick up much texture, and brass that not only feels synthetic, but completely swamping out tracks like 'Move Your Body' and 'Unstoppable'. Now, granted, songs that were clearly written for Rihanna like the watery 'Cheap Thrills' which might feature the ugliest chipmunk voice I've heard in years or the ridiculous ass anthem with the choppy, faux-90s production on 'Sweet Design' that sounds like a really bad Jennifer Lopez reject - hell, even with 'Move your Body' you can tell with the rhythm and crowd behind the chorus that it was designed as a Shakira dancefloor anthem. But it also highlights a huge issue with this record: the overproduction. For as much as there are some melodies here clawing their way past the percussion, with the reverb and effects piled on it's even harder to get to them, which can be a damn shame because when you clear it away for slightly more controlled tracks like 'Footprints' or 'Broken Glass', there are decent compositions here. Even the Kanye-produced track 'Reaper' had personality to it, even if by Kanye's terms it's far from his best.

And Sia's not helping matters. Now we can debate all day whether her voice works on this record: unlike most, I actually happen to like when she goes slightly off-key and more raw on 'Alive', if only because it adds a slightly more desperate visceral punch to the track that is almost redeemed by personality alone. It's not precisely good when the track before has her saying how she doesn't care that she sings off-key - it comes across as more calculated than it should - but I'm willing to forgive her this as at least landing some gravitas... mostly because on the rest of this record she's contorting her voice through waves of blatantly synthetic production effects in order to better mimic other artists. The problem is that Sia has a very distinctive voice of her own and is at her best singing in that tone, so watching her trying without much success to imitate Rihanna's sultriness, Demi Lovato's more explosive edge, or Shakira's uniquely quirky blend of seductress and dance floor alpha in tone and inflection just doesn't do anything for me, especially when it feels so forced. 

And maybe that was part of the point: this is Sia highlighting how she can play all of these pop roles and the artificiality of it all... but that's subtext at best. When you look at this album lyrically, the tracks really start to blend together as come-from-behind empowerment anthem crosses with dance floor jam and a parade of abusive relationships that might as well ring as comical considering how overstated they can be. And you might as well leave nuance at the door - when you have a song where Sia describes how she'll take one million bullets and then follows it with a challenge to her lover, 'how many would you take', I can't take this seriously. It also ties into a persistent problem I have with Sia's writing: it feels so overwrought, even for pop, that it can fall into formula absurdly fast, especially considering outside of 'Alive' and maybe 'Reaper' or 'Broken Glass', this would be album filler for their respective artists, or worse yet a redundant song that the artist has already done better. I might not like Jennifer Lopez, but she's made better and more well-composed anthems to her own awesomeness than the asinine 'Sweet Design' - I'd probably take 'Jenny From The Block' over this! And Shakira has plenty of songs stronger than 'Move Your Body' in the exact same vein with more colour and spirit. And then there's 'Unstoppable', which basically feels like Sia trying to rewrite Demi Lovato's 'Confident' except with little of the actual underlying confidence, which just makes all the claims of being unstoppable and invincible completely unbelievable. And if I were to give any credence to the 'acting' concept, it'd come that Sia's own self-esteem as evidenced in 'Footprints' or 'Reaper' or the exhausted 'Space Between' seems a lot less than the divas she's imitating. And if there was a shred of lyrical nuance highlighting the actual concept of the record for self-aware commentary, I'd be inclined to excuse how thin, generic, and lacking in the detail the writing is otherwise.

But as it is, if there's a record that highlights how acting is always a self-portrait, Sia definitely shows that on this album. The problem is that she's not a very good actor, and this record is too overproduced and underwritten to do more. In a sense, a lot of this record feels like filler that would have been cut from the respective albums, and as such, I get very little out of it. And for as much impact that this album is trying to make with the huge thunderous beats, I find many of these songs kind of formless and forgettable, except when they get aggressively grating. For me, it's a 5/10 and hard to recommend, but I'll also accept that my liking for her earlier work might colour my opinion of her material now. So I'll recommend her early-to-mid 2000s work - for me, at least, I'll take that.


  1. Are you going to be review the latest Tedeschi Trucks Band album, Let Me Get By? I'd love to hear your opinion on that. :)

  2. will you be reviewing the debut album from Nothing but Thieves?