It’s an album concept that not many artists could pull off — but Sia Furler is not your conventional pop star. The enigmatic Aussie went from co-penning songs for the likes of Katy Perry, Kelly Clarkson, and Pitbull to topping the charts herself with “Chandelier” (which just surpassed one billion views on YouTube). Now, for her follow-up to 2013’s 1000 Forms Of Fear, Sia is bucking the pop star prototype once more. This Is Acting is a reject's club: A compilation of the songs Sia wrote for Adele, Rihanna, Beyoncé, and others — but they ended up not recording. "I feel like they're hits, but nobody wanted them," she told Rolling Stone last year. "So I thought, Let's see, as an experiment, if I'm right.” The result is an album of reclaimed throwaways that has Sia trying on other artists' styles and stories, instead of telling her own. Acting is easy listening, her poppiest and most produced album yet: A collection of chorus-driven earworms and power anthems with a radio-ready sheen. It’s a lot of fun to listen to the chameleonic singer sample all these different musical personas. And to me, at least, half of the joy is speculating about who the songs were for and how well Ms. Furler pulls it off. She does an incredible job finessing the tone and texture of her voice to emulate the intended singer on each track. On the standout “Alive” — an epic, soaring declaration of vitality she co-wrote with Adele and Tobias Jesso Jr. — she effortlessly channels Adele’s rich, soulful croon. Sia reminds us that it’s her, though, by letting her voice crack at the peak of the chorus — a beautiful imperfection Adele wouldn’t allow. And the piano-driven composition of the gorgeous “Bird Set Free” would be right at home on 25.
But while the Adele songs feel authentic — a natural fit — Sia’s acting chops are really stretched on curveballs like “Move Your Body,” a generic dance floor anthem written for Shakira, where Sia assumes the singer's Colombian accent. (“Your body’s poetry / Speak to me / Won’t you let me be your rhythm tonight?”) The party track “Cheap Thrills,” written for Rihanna, layers a Caribbean reggaeton drumbeat with RiRi’s IDGAF attitude (“Baby I don’t need dollar bills to have fun tonight”) for entertaining, but decidedly un-Sia, results. She strikes a more genuine chord when she slows down on “Reaper” — a dark, but sunny, appeal to death to kindly fuck off for the day — a collaboration with Kanye West for Rihanna’s just-released ANTI. The biggest wildcard on Acting is “Sweet Design,” which samples Sisqo’s “Thong Song” (yes, really) and sounds like a long-lost Destiny’s Child hit about a booty with divine origins: “Word travels fast when you've got an ass like mine.” Such bombastic words sound pretty funny coming from a person so shy she conceals her face with a 15-pound wig.
There’s an inherent limit to how genuine the music on Acting feels. While most of the songs are structured using Sia’s signature formula — vulnerable, self-aware verses that build to empowering, cathartic choruses — she doesn't delve as deep lyrically as she's done in the past on, for instance, “Elastic Heart.” Save for “House on Fire,” the dark demons of addiction don’t appear the way they do on earlier hits, like “Chandelier.” (Furler has spoken about being addicted to drugs and alcohol in the past.) Or maybe, the words just don’t pierce quite as sharply knowing that when she says, “I was breaking down / And I saw only two footprints in the sand / Thought you'd abandoned me and let go of my hand,” on the romantic “Two Footprints,” the "I" was Beyoncé. Sia is known for being reclusive and mysterious, but in a way, she’s one of the most upfront, easy-to-read stars in the business today. With her emergence from the song-crafting woodwork into the spotlight, she made us think about who can be a pop star. Is it a shy, 40-year-old songwriter who shuns celebrity, magazine covers, and the shiny veneer of a poppy persona in favor of a gargantuan wig that you couldn’t possibly mistake for anybody else's? (A branding gimmick in its own.) With This Is Acting, Sia happily dismantles any romantic illusion that she’s a precious artist or a singular pop ingénue. No, here, Sia is a frank businesswoman having fun. She's making a statement about putting on a show by declaring that she is acting — and dropping that pretense allows her to play and experiment in a carefree way that is almost more real. Or maybe, she’s just a really good actress.