Whether you know her name or not, Sia Furler is a success in pop music. As a songwriter, she’s worked with everyone from Beyonce to Rihanna to J-Lo and has been involved in multiple Top 10 singles on the Billboard 200. But the metrics for what we consider “success” in pop are more than this. Sia would have to be a household name, would have to appear regularly on the TV shows we watch and the magazines we read. In the eyes of many Americans, Sia will never be a success because she will not be touring and promoting her music like we expect her to, with her face burned into our memory. In some ways, her sixth album, 1000 Forms of Fear, can’t achieve the heights we require for pop success. And that is okay.
After addiction took Sia to the brink of suicide following her last release, 2010’s We Are Born, just the fact that she is here, making music on her terms, is a success. And her terms call into question the way we consider music and art, whether commercial achievements and saturation are really the goals and should be discussed to the ends that we do. And aren’t there other things we are more concerned with than success, even in pop?
1000 Forms of Fear, however, isn’t quite the emotionally charged endeavor it wants to be. “Straight for the Knife” seems to confront her past suicidal state directly, but the rather straightforward melody of the ballad and the lackadaisical delivery keep the song from being profoundly moving, instead nestling safely into the middle-of-the-road pop Sia seems so focused on rising above.
Some songs on the collection do manage this. “Hostage” is an upbeat throwback to decades past, as if electronic dance music never existed and doing a fast, fun, rock and roll song was still commonplace for a pop singer. It kind of rules. “Elastic Heart,” which previously used The Weeknd and Diplo to perfect ends, allowing them to enhance her presence, manages to work in a less-guest-indebted variation. Of the slow songs, “Eye of the Needle” addressees her polarizing vocal ability with clenched fists, allowing her the freedom to wail unintelligibly as much as she wants and somehow make it work. Simplicity and predictability aren’t always negatives in pop, as long as some other areas make up for the songwriting’s struggles. On this song, it is Sia’s confidence, to try and hit the hard notes and not always succeed in that attempt.
Lead single “Chandelier” might exemplify some of the disconnect between Sia’s detractors and supporters. Yes, it is an interesting pop song in that it comes across as relaxed and charged simultaneously, but, you know, on the other hand, it sounds like Evanescence. There is a cheeseball element to Sia’s album here that pops up again on the over-the-top “Feed the Animal” and “Fire Meet Gasoline,” where the simplicity and predictability don’t have any particular saving grace. They exist solely to be in a movie trailer or an NBA on TNT promo or something like that, and they weigh down the collection with their dead weight.
It’s these moments where you realize that Sia’s attention lately has been in her finding creative ways to hide her face in TV appearances and promo materials. This is all good and interesting and raises some important questions, but 1000 Forms of Fear only sometimes warrants our engagement in this whole process. It’s an album that acts as if simply existing was success enough. Yes, it is successful in this light, but it could have still tried to be more.