While 2008’s fantastic Some People Have Real Problems found Sia taking a confident step toward a more polished sound and away from the somber, folktronica of her first two solo records, her latest effort, We Are Born, takes a headlong leap into pop territory—and it suits her well. Armed with an elastic voice that makes her sound like she could be Duffy’s grittier, more soulful older sister, Sia saunters and vamps through an engaging string of disco- and funk-infused pop tunes.
The album’s sunny sonic palette and dance-influenced aesthetic is no surprise coming from executive producer Greg Kurstin, one half of the Bird and the Bee. Fortunately for Sia, Kurstin brings an exuberance to We Are Born that was lacking in his band’s utterly inessential Interpreting the Masters Volume 1: A Tribute to Hall & Oates. Lead single “You’ve Changed” was originally recorded as a shrill, tinny dance track, but Kurstin reworks it here to include a funk-based rhythm section that gives the song a more propulsive 4/4 beat and a greater depth of texture. He also uses an unconventional, metallic percussion line to bring a sense of levity to “Hurting Me Now,” providing an effective contrast to Sia’s refrain: “You’re hurting me now/But you don’t even know it/You think it’s a joke/But you don’t even know it.”
As with Robyn’s Body Talk Pt. 1, the strongest moments on We Are Born are those that subsume Sia’s most melancholy lyrics in perfectly constructed bits of pure dance-floor escapism. After a decade’s worth of icy, detached dance-pop singers, it’s a welcome change of pace to hear Sia bring a lived-in humanity to her performances. The R&B-styled “Be Good to Me” rivals the best of Amy Winehouse thanks to Sia’s throaty, ragged delivery, and she’s just as effective on a restrained, delicate cover of Madonna’s “Oh Father.”
For all of her quirk and her occasional lapses into morose lyrics, though, Sia does embrace the album’s uptempo party vibe. On the brilliant second single “Clap Your Hands” (which has already been given an even-better remix by Diplo), she engages in a sharp bit of auto-critique, singing, “I’ve been neglecting the good things/What I mean is I need the good things/I’m finding light in the good things.” It may not be the deepest of sentiments, but it works nicely in this context. While We Are Born may not be as immediate or distinctive a statement as its predecessor, there’s ultimately very little about it that doesn’t work. Robyn may have all of the dance-pop hype at the moment, but We Are Born finds Sia poised to elbow her way into the spotlight.