The dramatic, acrobatic Sia explores 1000 Forms of Fear
Sia Furler wants to be heard, but not seen. In an age where popstars – many of them Sia's clients – are more visible than ever, as much models as musicians, it's only fitting that the unlikeliest popstar wants no part of it. Since her last album, 2010's relatively upbeat We Are Born, Sia's attempted to retire from music altogether, stick to writing for other people, even commit suicide – but every single time, she's been pulled back in. When her leaked demos aren't going multi-platinum, other popstars are riding her unmistakable enunciation to the top of the charts. Pop needs Sia far more than she needs it. 1000 Forms of Fear is no contractual obligation, but it feels like an inevitability.
It takes all of 33 seconds for the ground to fall out beneath “Chandelier”, a lead single so gloriously huge it could explain emotion to aliens. It's a feedback loop of influences – Sia doing Rihanna doing Bonnie Tyler – that would've been unthinkable even two years ago. It might be the first pop song to make addiction sound like an acrobatic, death-defying stunt. You'll attempt it drunk at karaoke, and it will break you. It works so well, in fact, that it inadvertently illuminates the formula behind every other song on the album.
Sia's as unflinchingly honest about her songwriting process as everything else. There's the central metaphor, often a physical object – “Titanium”, “Perfume”, “Cannonball” – around which she hangs tragedy, triumph, or both. It's a process so streamlined she wrote Rihanna's “Diamonds” in 15 minutes. Only in pop could that be a good thing. The thing is, her most cliché-on-paper anthemic songs – “Chandelier”, her David Guetta collaborations – are so forceful they obliterate all self-doubt. But applied over 12 variations on a theme, the songwriting-textbook exercise of it all begins to creep in. The emotions are real, even as the metaphors feel commissioned. It's to Sia's credit that it works at all.
For all the violence and drama in Sia's voice, there's a distinct lack of tension in producer Greg Kurstin's arrangements. With exceptions – the Police-esque “Hostage”, the frantic “Free the Animal” – these songs are ballads that go big almost by default. Too often, it's the most logical chord progression, backed by programmed drums and string swells in all the correct places. 1000 Forms of Fear doesn't quite embrace radio-pop – nor should it – but its compromise ends up obscuring the details of Sia's more intimate, traditional songs. By broadening her appeal for the sake of it, she loses some of the emotional generosity that made her an item in the first place.
Sia's uniqueness is a given. That's why she's so in demand as a songwriter: even over generic production, voiced by far less distinctive singers, something of her indefinable essence remains. For all its obvious strengths and flaws, 1000 Forms of Fear is fascinating because of Sia's reluctance to play the pop game. But that's the genius of the manic, extraordinary “Chandelier” video, or Beyoncé's “Pretty Hurts” – from Carole King to Max Martin, truly great songwriters always know when to step back from the spotlight. As for Sia herself? Maybe her anti-image is liberating, a performance-art commentary on the nature of fame. But sometimes, she's just a voice without a face.