Having written a string of hits for other artists, including Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” which she allegedly whipped up in 14 minutes, Aussie singer-songwriter Sia has mastered the conventions of chart-friendly pop. But while there isn’t much structural trailblazing on display throughout 1000 Forms of Fear, her first album in four years, Sia continues to distinguish herself from other belt-happy female singers in the way she mines the territory between fragility and strength. She’s less attention-seeking than Ke$ha, but equally vulnerable to bad boys and binge drinking, and less conventionally inspirational than Kelly Clarkson, but just as competent at soaring through a chorus at the top of her range.
1000 Forms of Fear seems pitched like a comeback, channeling the darkness Sia has found in fame, addiction, and personal loss in recent years into a batch of crescendoing power anthems that find her both wallowing in and overcoming a variety of setbacks. Lead single “Chandelier” epitomizes the album’s gray area between total despair and something that sounds like hope. Opening with the line “Party girls don’t get hurt” sung over a finger-snap beat and a hollow-sounding marimba line, the song builds to a hook that juxtaposes a triumphant melody with an ominous lyric capturing the wild abandon of an alcoholic about to hit rock bottom.
Most of the songs fall into standard pop subgenres (torch ballads and power anthems, mainly), but Sia regularly slips in lyrics that are far creepier and seedier than any you’ll find in your typical radio fare. Whether approaching heartbreak or giddy sexual desire, she sings about love as a form of violence: Both “Straight for the Knife” and “Elastic Heart” feature lyrics about flesh being sliced open, and “Free the Animal” takes the expression “loving someone to death” to a multitude of troublingly explicit extremes. When describing a bummed-out friend she hopes to cheer up in “Burn the Pages,” Sia mixes metaphors to produce an unsettling yet illustrative rhyme: “You’re twisted up like a slipknot/Tied by a juicehead who just took his T-shot.” There’s a lot of smeared-makeup and morning-after shame coursing through these songs, but their general arcs bend toward victory achieved amid crushing obstacles, self-imposed and otherwise.
It’s a formula that surprisingly doesn’t wear thin thanks to Sia’s elastic vocal cords and producer Greg Kurstin’s expert hand with a slow build and an explosive climax. Almost without fail, Sia’s vocals are texturized with beats, synths, and surprising embellishments like the ominous piano chords that punctuate a stutter-step drum line on “Eye of the Needle” and the vibraphone/kick-drum breakdown accompanying her spiraling adlibs midway through “Fair Game.” Surpassing her earlier albums in its consistency and balls-to-the-wall gusto, 1000 Forms of Fear should be the vessel that rockets the singer out of relative obscurity and into the stratosphere populated by those more recognizable stars who’ve come to dominate the pop-music universe thanks, in part, to her songwriting skills.