Sia Furler’s last release, 2014’s summer smash “1000 Forms of Fear,” caused waves on the radio and on YouTube; Maddie Ziegler of “Dance Moms” fame, accompanied at one point by none other than Shia LaBeouf, brought vivid vulnerability to Furler’s already raw lyrical content and sky-high belting. Here was an artist a lot of people had heard of but few people had heard. Her voice caught us as off guard as what she was saying.
“This Is Acting,” Furler’s seventh studio album, is in some ways expected. A collection of hits intended for but rejected by other artists, Furler nevertheless opens by declaring her independence in no uncertain terms on “Bird Set Free”: “I don’t care if I sing off key/ I find myself in my melodies/ I sing for love/ I sing for me.” Lyrics like these would be in stark contrast to her past work, which so often revolved around self-abuse and toxic love, were they not preceded on the same track by a repetitious cry of “I don’t want to die.”
So what’s not new is the desperation of a creative mind sometimes ensnared by itself. As on past hits like “Chandelier,” which took two or three listenings to distinguish as a confessional rather than an anthem, Furler disguises her darkness here with impeccable hooks.
“House On Fire” stands out as one of the catchiest tracks, lazy and lilting and surface-level romantic, its lyrics revealing a narrative fraught with destruction. “Unstoppable” might be the ultimate workout jam, living up easily to the might of its title with rolling hi-hats befitting of a sports-movie montage; the electro-pop facade masks verses full of barely-controlled pain, turning lines like “I’ll put my armor on/ show you how strong I am” from battle cry to warning. In a way, this discord is even more unsettling than it was last time on “1000 Forms.” In a way, it would be hard to imagine a Sia album without it.
As one might expect in a collection full of songs intended for other voices, there are a few wild cards on “This Is Acting.” Two tracks were clearly written for clubs: “Move Your Body” and “Cheap Thrills.” The latter of the two is far more successful, both because it compliments Furler’s odd, thick vocals, and because it’s one of the most immediately-danceable songs about dancing that’s ever been released. It’s also fun-creepy in the exact way Furler coined with her series of eerie music videos, featuring a choir of chanting children in the background of the lounging chorus.
Only one sonic experiment doesn’t seem to work: “Sweet Design,” which sounds a little like a reject from P!nk’s 2001 “M!ssundaztood,” but not in a nostalgia-inducing way. The lyrics are brilliant and cheeky if you can pay attention to them with that much noise going on. Fortunately, it’s short, clocking in at less than three minutes. “Space Between” is not nearly as jarring, but may be the second-weakest, if only because it will polarize those who are not all the way on board with Furler’s profoundly unique vocals.
Ultimately, the two strongest tracks are the strongest for polar-opposite reasons. “Alive,” co-written by Furler and Adele, is the heavyweight in every sense: The hook is razor-sharp, the high-notes astronomical, the video astonishing (and featuring nine-year-old black-belt Mahiro Takana). “Broken Glass” is the underdog, subtle and seemingly-simple. If for the first two choruses it seems that Furler uses this track as a vocal rest, wait for the first and then the second key change, which rocket the song into a hypnotic, lovely layer of the atmosphere without ever seeming strained.
The platinum wig Furler has used to mask her face and mark her presence since 2014 has been dyed half black for “This Is Acting.” At once this feels like a statement of growth and an acknowledgement that she’s made a sort of sequel to the breakout that was “1000 Forms of Fear.” Not every track could be tailored to fit, and it is this that accounts for most of the album’s stumbles. Still, when she hits, she hits hard. Prepare to be pummeled.