The past decade-plus of pop music has been dominated by behind-the-scenes songwriting maestros like Max Martin and Ryan Tedder, but only one of them – 40-year-old Australian Sia Furler – has become a solo star in her own right. Sia had a career as an electronica-leaning artist in the early 2000s, before finding her voice as a Top 40 master blaster, writing smashes for Beyoncé, Rihanna and more. She saved her most intense fire for her own breakout solo hit, 2014’s “Chandelier” – a diabolically catchy depiction of alcoholism that was also so real it could scare Jim Beam off booze.
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.
Sometimes these outtakes feel like, well, outtakes: “Footprints” is an orphan from a Beyoncé writing session with refrigerator-magnet-level lyrics (comparing a relationship’s progress to “two footprints in the sand”) that Bey was wise to pass on. Impressively, though, for an album that’s more about utilitarian versatility than making the songs her own, Sia’s personality often comes through. The high point is “One Million Bullets,” the only song she wrote with herself in mind. Against a dusky minor-key piano, Sia offers herself as her lover’s protector, muse and martyr – her voice cracking perfectly in the chorus as she asks if they’d take a shot for her too. If this is acting, it’s the kind of performance that hits as hard as life itself.