A multiplatinum pop star who prefers to be heard and not seen? It sounds eccentric, if not straight-up impossible—especially in 2016, when fame is considered not just a day job but a 24/7 social contract. Still, it’s worked surprisingly well so far for Sia Furler, who has managed to sell more than 30 million albums and singles and rack up some 2 billion views for music videos that showcase almost everything but her face.
Having no image is, of course, a very deliberate image in itself. And if anything, the singer’s strategically chosen, flaxen-wigged stand-ins—from frenzied tween pixie Maddie Ziegler in the original “Chandelier” clip to Lena Dunham on Late Night With Seth Meyers and Kristen Wiig at the Grammys—have only heightened her profile, while slyly tweaking the idea of how the pop game is supposed to be played.
The Australian native’s seventh studio album, This Is Acting, takes the idea of remove one step further: It’s composed almost entirely of songs written for—and in some cases rejected by—other artists. Lead single “Alive” was co-penned with Adele but ultimately left off her November blockbuster 25, and other tracks were purportedly meant for Rihanna and Beyoncé, both of whom Sia has written hits for in the past. Not many vocalists would be brave (or crazy) enough to take on a ballad designed for Adele’s titanic range, even if it belonged to them first; Sia may be one of the few actually capable of it. The sweeping, defiant “Alive” suits her richly distinctive voice—a quicksilver warble that swoops and dives and bends itself around every note.
This isn’t the breathy, prettily recessive Sia of the early aughts, a sometime singer for downtempo British duo Zero 7 and solo starlet whose “Breathe Me,” a.k.a. the Death Montage Song from HBO’s Six Feet Under, became her American calling card. Her move to Los Angeles and subsequent years spent crafting stadium-scale anthems for the Hot 100 varsity squad (Katy, Kelly, Britney, Beyoncé) seems to have amplified her reach and range. Nearly every track on Acting is built on what the singer herself has dubbed “victim to victory” themes—tales of triumph over hardship, drawn in Sharpie and slathered with self-love metaphors: She is a bird set free, a house on fire, a Porsche with no brakes (two of the three of those sound like they will seriously affect her insurance premiums, but anyway). “One Million Bullets” and the bombastic “Unstoppable” pile on the can’t-hold-me-down analogies, and “Footprints” is basically a pastor’s-office poster set to synths (“Only two footprints in the sand/Thought you’d abandoned me and let go of my hand/But you were carrying me, carrying me to safety”). Somehow, though, broad strokes suit these songs; Sia’s unabashed aim is uplift, and her feel for sing-along-until-your-neighbor-bangs-on-the-radiator hooks rarely falters. Her less introspective side—the one that penned Vegas pool-party jams like David Guetta’s “Titanium” and Flo Rida’s “Wild Ones”—emerges too, on the stuttering, “Thong Song”-riffing “Sweet Design” and Major Lazer-ish rave-up “Cheap Thrills.”
In rare interviews, Sia has spoken openly of struggling with depression; you won’t learn much more about that here, but maybe that’s the privilege of being “faceless”: the right to offer up as much or as little as she chooses, and let the music do the rest. B+
Alive The skyscraping ballad Adele helped pen, then passed back to Sia | Reaper Kanye West has writing and production credits on this sunny middle finger to mortality
Cheap Thrills A bouncy, reggae-kissed ode to low-budget fun