For many years, Sia Furler circled around music’s mainstream, staying on the fringes except for the occasional prominent pop-culture appearance. The Australian singer-songwriter added woozy R&B and jazz vocals to Zero 7’s downtempo electronica, while her piano-and-strings tearjerker “Breathe Me” augmented the already heart-wrenching Six Feet Under finale. Later, she wrote songs for Christina Aguilera’s ill-fated Bionic LP and dabbled in quirky dance-rock with songs such as “Clap Your Hands.”
But in recent times, Sia’s become the go-to co-writer for pop music’s biggest names, and has had a hand in hits by Rihanna (“Diamonds”), Beyoncé (“Pretty Hurts”), and David Guetta (“Titanium,” on which she also appears). Naturally, her first solo album since that ascension, 1000 Forms Of Fear, skews more toward this Top 40 sound. Melodramatic hooks, reggae- and hip-hop-influenced rhythms, subtle orchestra swells and neon-hued electropop abound, with the occasional syrupy torch song (“Eye Of The Needle”), skittering power ballad (the Diplo- and The Weeknd-assisted “Elastic Heart”), and pop oddity (“Free The Animal,” which resembles Tegan and Sara’s Heartthrob crossed with mid-’80s Peter Gabriel electro-prog) tossed in for variety.
The paradox of 1000 Forms Of Fear is that Sia the solo artist isn’t predisposed to the musical concessions often needed to achieve hits—or the more straightforward performance styles of the artists for which she’s written. In fact, she often sounds uncomfortable belting out dramatic choruses or cooing like a confident diva; on the new-wave pop throwback “Hostage,” her voice cracks like a punk singer, not a radio starlet.
This awkward tension between natural imperfections and pop precision is relieved somewhat by 1000 Forms Of Fear’s lyrics, which are far darker (and more insightful) than most. “Fair Game” is a minimalist, string-laden tune about wanting to find an equal partner; the Pink-like “Cellophane” is about feeling vulnerable and messed up in front of someone else (“While I fall apart, you’ll hide all my pills again”) and “Chandelier” is about feeling trapped by excess and a debauched lifestyle. “Straight For The Knife” is even more harrowing. It details a tempestuous relationship, the kind where the protagonist escapes but then returns, with potentially dangerous consequences: “But will someone find me swinging from the rafters / I’m hanging on your every word.”
During those moments, 1000 Forms Of Fear hews toward the kind of subversive, affecting pop that’s Sia’s solo forte. But perhaps because she’s been so immersed in writing songs for other people, the distinctive edges of her singing voice and music feel largely subsumed by external influences and validation. 1000 Forms Of Fear certainly has the songs and contemporary sheen to make Sia a star in her own right, but it’s at the expense of both her emotional intimacy and her offbeat personality.