Five years is an eternity in pop. In 2016, This Is Acting, anchored by the moody party hit “Cheap Thrills,” cemented Sia’s status as a pop star. But in the time since, she’s seemed uncertain of her next step, and her moves were hesitant and tentative. There was a Christmas album, a collaboration with Diplo and the British rapper Labirinth as a group called LSD, and a string of singles that mostly went nowhere commercially, four of which surface on the soundtrack to the film that preoccupied Sia for much of that interim.
Shot in 2017 and edited over the following three years, Sia’s directorial debut, Music, is a labor of love. It’s also the most widely panned movie musical since Cats, though it’s far less likely to become a cult classic. Sia was criticized in advance for casting neurotypical actor and dancer Maddie Ziegler (the star of Sia’s “Chandelier” video) as a teen with autism (named, what else, “Music”), and for a story insensitive to the real experiences of people on the spectrum. Nothing about the finished product has convinced most critics they were wrong.
Still, lousy flicks can have great soundtracks, right? And, in fact, Music rarely drops below a certain baseline level of pop craft, because Sia knows how to assemble effective songs, and top producers like Jack Antonoff, Greg Kurstin, and David Guetta splash enough musical colors on top to bring these tracks to life. But what Music lacks is a great hit to pull it all into focus. Even the immense “Courage to Change,” which effectively showcases both Sia’s dramatically slurred midrange and heavens-vaulting upper register, is a standard-issue inspirational-movie ballad.
Much of Music is mawkishly uplifting. Children’s voices join in on “Together” to let us know ”Ooh, you can’t love me unless you love you too”; “Saved My Life” bogs down in a repetitive prechorus of “I’ve been waiting for you”; and “Twisted by terror/All my turmoil has taught me in a tide is now turned” could have been written by a speech therapist. Music is best at its friskiest and upbeat: the flirty “Hey Boy” (especially on the bonus-track version, featuring the Nigerian singer and rapper Burna Boy), “1+1,” and “Play Dumb.”
For good or bad, this soundtrack may be forever tainted by its association with the film. But if that bothers you, look on the bright side: Had this relentlessly inspirational collection dropped into our lives simply as the new Sia album, it’d probably have been just as disappointing.