Album Review: Sia's This Is Acting

Sia's This is Acting marks a strong start for pop music in 2016. Leaning heavily on the singer/songwriter's empowerment formula, her new album collects material she wrote for other artists but that never made it on their albums.

Pop music has a long history of hired-gun songwriters who attempt to move between writing for others and their own solo careers. The best example is Carole King, who started by releasing her own singles but spent most of her early career pumping out tunes for 60s stars; she followed this writing success with a record-setting solo album, Tapestry, and a string of hits. Of more contemporary stars, Bonnie McKee is attempting to break into solo stardom after writing for major pop-divas like Katy Perry and Kesha. Unlike King, McKee is having a harder time making that transition, despite legitimate vocal and songwriting talent. (Check out her EP, Bombastic, and you'll see what I mean.) The moral of the story here is that songwriting success and pop stardom are not synonymous, which makes Sia and this new album all the more interesting.

Part of Sia's appeal is that she has a strong, quirky vocal presence, and her performance unites these tunes. Though the 12 songs that compose This is Acting are about perseverance, they vary in tone from the sweeping melodrama of "Bird Set Free" and "Alive" (both written for Adele) to the feel-good party anthems "Cheap Thrills" and "Reaper." There is also the break-neck clash of "Sweet Design" and the thundering romance of "Broken Glass." Because Sia has been transparent about this material being abandoned by its intended stars, one cannot help but guess what tune was intended for what singer. Still, the even more interesting exercise is listening to how Sia alters her voice to match the atmosphere of the tunes, pushing her vocals to breaking on "Alive," playing with a faux accent on "Cheap Thrills," and  softening on "Footprints" (a song with a cheesy conceit that she successfully sells anyway).

This is Acting is not as dark as Sia's previous record, 1000 Forms of Fear,  but all of these songs sound Top 40 ready. The album plays like greatest hits package that never was--all tunes varied, radio-friendly, and pulled together by the charisma of their performer.

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