Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Album Review: 1000 Forms of Fear by Sia

It’s always an interesting thing in popular music when one of the main creators of the music itself, be it a producer or a songwriter, decides to become a pop star themselves. Just this year we’ve seen Pharrell Williams’s profile as a solo artist skyrocket since his surprise international hit, “Happy,” took off not too long ago. Last year, Katy Perry co-writer Bonnie McKee attempted a solo career with her single “American Girl” to mixed results. And now, this brings us to the subject at hand: Sia.

Sia has alternated between her career as an alternative/pop artist and songwriter for quite some time now, announcing her retirement after the release of her last album in 2010. Since then, Sia has returned with her latest release, titled 1000 Forms of Fear. This album came with the stipulation that she wouldn’t tour for it or do extension promotion, making it one of the more interesting releases in pop music (which has already caught the attention of people who’ve missed Sia’s point entirely). Considering the four year gap between albums, is this worth the wait?

Well, it all depends on what one expects or wants. The new album cuts back on the dance beats and 80s synths of her last album, We are Born, instead focusing on more slow songs and a more electronic focus, compared to the ever present guitar work of Strokes guitarist Nick Valensi (who makes an appearance on "Hostage.") The production is primarily done by one half of The Bird and the Bee, Greg Kurstin, who has worked with Lily Allen, Lykke Li, and Tegan and Sara most recently. His work with Sia is very similar to his work with the others—very spacious production, crisp but not too flat or overproduced. There’s an emphasis on Sia’s vocals, making everything feel very warm and intimate, which contrasts very well with the more electronic-based indie pop production. However, like his work with Lykee Li, there’s a lot of echo and reverb in the production, mainly relying on the keyboards for the melody lines, a choice that may irritate many people but did not bother me.

As a singer, Sia’s definitely an acquired taste. Her enunciation takes some getting used to and her voice, while powerful, is not particularly well trained—she goes off key or off pitch several times throughout the record. For those who prefer more subtle vocals from Sia, this is not the record for you.

The songwriting on the album is clearly the focus and it may end up being what makes or breaks the album for you. For me, this record works extremely well. The songs are written mainly about relationships or stories that are very broadly painted but still show some of the quirks that endeared Sia to people years ago. Her experience as a pop songwriter is put well to use: each song contains a strong and memorable hook, the melodies are stronger than just about anything else in pop music this year thus far, and the lyrics, while not particularly specific or personal, stand out enough to help keep Sia from sounding too much like those she produces for, helping her avoid the problem Bonnie McKee ran into. Album highlight “Big Girls Cry” contains a lovely string section, elevating the heartfelt subject matter; “Elastic Heart” features a cameo from the Weeknd, who proves to be far more compelling here than on his last album.

1000 Forms of Fear is not a perfect album. Some of the production choices don’t work, the vocals could be better executed, and not all the lyrics are clever. But considering how compelling the songs can be at their best, it’s hard to think of a more thought-provoking, catchy, and gripping release in pop this year.

Score: 4/5

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