That most of the songs on This Is Acting were intended for other artists results in material—both in terms of theme and sound—that you wouldn’t expect to find on a Sia album. “Word travels fast when you’ve got an ass like mine,” she sings on “Sweet Design,” a lyric that feels contrived coming from the infamously bashful singer-songwriter. Part of the fun, of course, is trying to suss out whom these songs were originally written for. Sia deserves credit for so easily slipping into the personas of her muses, but “Sweet Design,” which harks back to the go-go sound of Beyoncé’s B’Day, and “Move Your Body,” whose unabashed 4/4 beat and clattering EDM percussion are straight out of Rihanna’s Loud, seem more like dated outtakes than underappreciated gems.
Sia performs the rest of the songs with the conviction of a seasoned pro: Despite some sophomoric party-girl lyrics, the reggae-hued “Cheap Thrills” is the album’s most obvious ascendant of “Chandelier,” Sia’s vocals affecting a subtle patois and Greg Kurstin’s production smartly letting the groove do most of the work. It’s the autobiographical, soul-plumbing depths of Sia’s songwriting, however, that made her previous efforts feel so immediate, so personal, and ironically, the songs here whose origins have been most widely publicized—“Alive” and “Bird Set Free,” both originally slated for Adele’s 25—come closest to capturing that potency.
The latter’s opening piano strains evoke those of Adele’s “Someone Like You,” but the track soon explodes into the kind of rousing anthem conspicuously absent from the British singer’s latest album. “Alive,” which the two artists wrote together, takes things to Celine Dion-esque levels of bombast; Sia’s voice, evocative of the Canadian icon’s own, bears the marks of years of belting such towering power ballads, and the cracks give her performances here and on songs like “Space Between” a shredded, lived-in quality. Would that the rest of This Is Acting felt less like acting too.