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Sia – This is Acting

  • Release date: 29 January 2016
  • Label: Inertia, Monkey Puzzle, RCA

Sia’s songs update the grandiose Eighties lite-rock ballad tradition of Diane Warren and Phil Collins for our moodier era of R&B-inscribed feminism, delivering lyrics about strain, perseverance and redemption over tracks that build from tensely foreboding verse to a titanic cathartic chorus. She’s mastered the formula so well that she’s made her seventh solo album a commentary on how hit songs are made. The tunes here were originally intended for – and then rejected by – major singers. It’s a fascinating study in what it’s like to live life imagining yourself in someone else’s artistic shoes.

This Is Acting opens with two songs that Sia hoped to land on Adele’s 25. Her approximation of the phrasing and tone of the world’s most beloved singer over the roiling piano on “Bird Set Free” is uncanny, while “Alive” is a throwback soul crusher that would’ve been the hardest-hitting thing on that blockbuster LP. Even when the match between artist and material isn’t quite copacetic, the quality control is high: Rihanna might’ve been right to dismiss “Cheap Thrills,” but the lithe party tune could’ve done well for a sprightlier singer like Ariana Grande. Other highlights, such as the industrial-strength anthem “Unstoppable,” feel like they could’ve been recorded by a half-dozen artists, from Katy Perry to Miley Cyrus.

These outtakes can occasionally seem like, well, outtakes: Beyoncé was wise to pass on “Footprints,” an orphan from a writing session that features refrigerator-magnet-level lyrics (comparing a relationship’s advancement to “two footprints in the sand”). It’s impressive, though, that Sia’s individuality comes through a lot on an album that focuses more on practical adaptability than making the songs her own. The only song she wrote specifically for herself, “One Million Bullets,” is the high point. Sia presents herself as her lover’s inspiration, martyr, and protector against a moody minor-key piano. In the chorus, her voice cracks precisely as she begs them to take a shot for her as well. This kind of acting hits as hard as life itself, if that’s what it is.

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Sia’s This is Acting Tracklist

1. “Bird Set Free”
2. “Alive”
3. “One Million Bullets”
4. “Move Your Body”
5. “Unstoppable”
6. “Cheap Thrills”
7. “Reaper”
8. “House On Fire”
9. “Footprints”
10. “Sweet Design”
11. “Broken Glass”
12. “Space Between”