Up until this point there have been two oft-quoted supposedly interesting things about Sia. First, her facelessness and atypical shunning of the limelight. When she has appeared in public this year it’s been with a bag over her head, face-painted or with her back to the audience (it was written into her RCA contract that she doesn’t have to tour or talk to press to promote the album and you can read her anti-fame manifesto here). Second, her wildly successful songwriting for major superstars such as Rihanna, Britney Spears and David Guetta. But ‘1,000 Forms Of Fear’ – her latest album and first since 2010 – puts an end to all that. Finally Sia’s self-released material is being recognised; this week the album sits at number one in the Billboard chart.
Woah, I can’t believe this experiment worked. Thank you so much for making my album number 1!
— sia (@Sia) July 16, 2014
It makes sense for Sia to be surprised that her “experiment” has worked. This is no ordinary album. Lyrics about suicide, alcoholism, addiction to pills, murder and depression sit next to the enormous, stadium-filling choruses and abundant hooks she is both known and employed for. You’d think an album with gritty, adult themes would be far too violent for the charts – and certainly commercial radio – but it has struck a chord in both audiences in the US and across the world.
A quick recap on Sia’s eccentric and versatile career. Born in Australia in in 1975, her sandpaper voice and its immense range was first heard on her vocal work with Zero 7. Between 1997 and now she has released six solo albums to varied success. The jobs that’ve made her millions are penning hit singles for massive superstars. She wrote David Guetta’s ‘Titanium’ in 40 minutes and Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’ in 14. 14! I can’t even choose what sandwich to have for lunch in 14 minutes. She is also responsible for 12 million track sales and has always found more success writing for other people.
So what changed? At the end of 2013, Sia told Billboard: “After 14 years of songwriting, I feel less vulnerable about telling the truth about what’s really mine.” The songwriting dynamo had experienced a period of drug addiction, suicidal thoughts, health problems and ensuing depression. She has written about recovery and emotional issues before, but the account of her life in ‘1,000 Forms Of Fear’ feels different. It feels dangerous. It’s clear that there was too much at stake in the path she was going down.
So how has the album made it into the charts? I suppose ‘Hostage’, written with fellow RCA label mate and Strokes guitarist Nick Valensi, is the nearest to a number one Radio 1 hit. It’s bouncy and ska-tinged, belying the tricky theme of possession, which combined with a chugging chorus doesn’t sound all that bad. But I don’t believe that track is to thank.
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On the whole, this is raw and unsparing songwriting. It reads like a sprawling diary with Sia’s scars and innards and darkest thoughts and desires laid bare without edit or fear. It is, frankly, dark, and more akin to Cat Power’s work than anything else in the Top 40 over the last decade or so. ‘Straight For The Knife’ imagines a murderous partner – “You went straight for the knife, and I prepared to die, Your blade it shines” – who drives Sia to potentially take her own life. “But will someone find me swinging from the rafters / From hanging on your every word.” ‘Free The Animal’, a song that wouldn’t sound out of place on ‘Beyoncé’ with its hiccoughing auto-tune and an enormous chorus, imagines being killed in lurid, masochistic detail.
Shoot me like a cannon ball
Kill me like an animal
Hit me like a baseball
Free the animal, free the animal…
“Pour acid rain on me,” is another startling line from the song. Sia’s addiction to pills is directly acknowledged head on in ‘Cellophane’, one of the highlights: “Look at me, I’m such a basket case / While I fall apart you’ll hide all my pills again.” Compared with previous albums, her vocals sound more hysterical, savage, strained and brutal, as if she’s really singing about something close to the heart. Instances when her voice scrapes and cracks are left in and it’s all the more authentic for it.
One key to the album is the juxtaposition of all this tragedy with high-level songwriting. ‘Fair Game’, for example, a Regina Spektor-esque track that’s comparatively low-tempo, twists and turns within melodies that manipulate expectations, her acrobatic vocals unfettered and soaring all over the place. Sia is a master of manipulating exceptions in this albums, knowing full well that by subverting them she can change the listener’s emotions. The chorus to ‘Chandelier’ could not be bigger, mirroring the chemical euphoria of a night out she’s writing about, before crashing back down. Any charge that this is the downtrodden ‘misery-lit’ of music will be shooed away by her pop chops.
But, most of all, the story of Sia’s personal resurrection is the album’s triumph. She has called it her “victim to victory” record after confronting 1,000 forms of fear and coming out the other side strong and alive. Perhaps this is why the album’s at number one in the US and 11 in the UK: stories of recovery from ‘issues’ are part of the every-day discourse in the States and it’s pretty standard to speak openly about mental illness, addiction and therapy without the British stiff upper lip getting in the way. But, also, it seems the time is ripe for confessional music. Beyoncé’s self-titled expose of her womanhood and sexuality kicked off 2014 at the top of the chart followed by Lana Del Rey’s tremblingly personal yet universal ‘Ultraviolence’ later in the year. Sia’s, though, is the most heart-breaking and emotional of all – and it’s got million-dollar hooks.