Late last year, Sia revealed the album cover and release date of This Is Acting, her seventh studio album. The collection is a patchwork of different songs intended for other artists such as Adele, Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Shakira.
Of the album’s title, Sia explains: “I’m calling it ‘This Is Acting’ because they are songs I was writing for other people, so I didn’t go in thinking ‘this is something I would say’. It’s more like play-acting. It’s fun”, the only song not meant for anyone else is “One Million Bullets”. The album actually has similar themes and sounds, yet when it comes to certain tracks (most notably “Move Your Body” and “Sweet Design”), they don’t sound like Sia at all.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Sia explains song-writing for others: “It’s really just hit or miss, and I think the reason I’m pretty successful is actually because I’m really productive, not necessarily that I’m a great songwriter. I think I’m a good curator, so I know how to choose tracks that feel like they’re anthemic, or that seem to have an uplifting quality in the chorus”. This process is also described as “basically throwing spaghetti at a wall and hoping it will stick” but the Australian song-writer also adds that it’s akin to a “puzzle”, something with pieces which only fit in certain places.
The main theme of this album that struck a chord with me was empowerment. The songs which correspond to this category are: “Bird Set Free”, “Alive”, “Unstoppable”, “Reaper”, and “House On Fire”, which amount to almost half of the album’s twelve songs. “Reaper” (a song meant for Rihanna with help from Kanye West) could be about the Grim Reaper but, equally, it could be about mental issues or an ex-lover.
Each scenario carries slightly different emotions, but it all sounds pretty empowering to me with the repeated lyric “You tried to drag me down / You followed me like the darkest cloud / But no baby, no baby not today”. Sia admits to feeling emotionally detached from the song, but it’s a personal favourite.
The first time I listened to “Unstoppable” was on the bus to work, and “Alive” made several appearances during particularly tough spells. Both songs made me feel better, especially the chorus in “Unstoppable” which sounds like a mantra of self-acceptance that one would say before of a mirror.
I mean, what more do you need than: “I’m unstoppable / I’m a Porsche with no brakes / I’m invincible / Yeah, I win every single game / I’m so powerful / I don’t need batteries today / I’m so confident / Yeah, I’m unstoppable today” amongst a parade of brass instruments? Furthermore, Sia’s powerful, emotive vocals in “Alive” have provoked their fair share of stomach flips. It’s the way that Sia’s voice breaks during the penultimate chorus that gets me most; if you don’t know which section I mean, look out for 3:51 in the video below.
There are a cluster of dance songs thrown into the mix, too. Tracks like “Move Your Body”, “Cheap Thrills”, and “Sweet Design” belong to this group. “Move Your Body” is a typical pop-dance song that was intended for Shakira. In my opinion, this is one of the tracks where it’s obvious to tell that it wasn’t originally meant for Sia.
The true meaning of the album title shines through on this track and according to Vulture (and I concur), Sia does a “strangely convincing Shakira accent” in the song. To further praise Sia’s acting, “Cheap Thrills” – also meant for Rihanna – actually sounds like Rihanna. It’s always comforting to find an artist who can shape-shift when required.
This Is Acting is an interesting – some might say risky – concept alone. It’s an album made up of rejects that Sia admits are a bit of an experiment: “I feel like they’re hits, but nobody wanted them. So I thought, ‘Let’s see, as an experiment, if I’m right'”. So far, I have seen fairly mixed reviews of the album, but it entered at number four on the Billboard 200 (just one below Adele).
This Is Acting, released on January 29, can be bought here so please, lend your voice to the discussion: is it right that the songs were rejected, or are they missed opportunities that Sia was wise to hold on to?
Words by Shanade McConney