Somehow, this is already Sia’s sixth album, and we’re only just getting comfortable. So goes the path for artists who begin in foreign markets, sometimes. For Sia, it was Australia and the debut album flop. And then it was eschewing traditional fame out of fear for her sanity. 1000 Forms of Fear is pop music turned into pain, instead of vice versa, like we’re used to. Sure, we’ve heard the “fame is awful” spiel before, but instead of just keeping it in her brusque Billboard op-ed, it seems that Sia’s let all that misery spill over into her latest album. If you really want to know what Sia is about, listen to her heartfelt, candid interview with Howard Stern. So, why now? Why is Sia’s album electrifying us the way that it is?
Sia was 22 when she got her first record deal, and then her first record completely flopped. She’s talked about her dad’s dissociative personalities and her parents’ early divorce. She’s heavily medicated for a bipolar disorder. She’s open about her near-suicide. She’s a recovering alcoholic who readily admits that a 12-step program saved her life. (This is all in the Howard Stern interview, if you’re the type that lives and dies by hyperlinks.) This isn’t an album designed to sell anything to anyone — Sia does that for a living when she tosses off “Wild Ones” without ever looking back. So, these are the songs she couldn’t let go of. “Chandelier” is the Rihanna song that had too much of Sia in it to become another “Diamonds”. When you listen to 1000 Forms of Fear and hear the real pain in her beautiful, guttural vocal hiccups, it doesn’t feel like a voyeuristic experience but, rather, like an old friend’s new hurting or your own past mistakes. “Chandelier” holds the majesty and marvel of the night out, the blind eye to the clock or consequences, but it also contains the morning-after misery. It hits every moment of the cycle with new rawness, ravaging our attempts at existential relief.
But “Chandelier” is just the beginning here, and anyone who’s unwilling to dig deep into this album is failing to see just how accessible Sia’s writing is. “Big Girls Cry” flips a familiar phrase into an agonizing, true-life tale of text message trauma; the lack of a simple wake-up call stands in for the wholesale crumbling of an entire future together. The fear and horror of loneliness slink through these tracks like unwelcome party guests, nagging us with questions we don’t want to answer. “Eye of the Needle” as the impossible space we fit our hearts through after the end, “Dressed in Black” as the accusations you always face down toward the end. Or, there’s the terror contained in plush, pliant pop packages, which is made more terrifying by just how easy it goes down. These songs hit like hard liquor masked in beautiful cocktail form, and perhaps that’s an indication of just how familiar Sia is with alcohol’s own siren song. Just to be clear: The clinging, cloying trap of “Cellophane” and the dramatic explosion of “Fire Meets Gasoline” are not love songs.
Some pop stars feel unreachable, but Sia feels like she might be slumped, exhausted, or hungover next to you on the train. There’s been a lot of talk about “anti-pop stars” lately, and while that terminology almost fits Sia, it’s not quite right. The stance of “anti” assumes a positioning against or rivaling contrast to pop, and that’s not what she’s done. She’s used everything that’s gorgeous and riveting about pop to talk about whatever she wants. She’s a master songwriter rebelling against the shallow reaches of the genre’s vocabulary. “Hostage” could be early Kings of Leon sonically, and that’s a compliment; there are soft piano moments like “Fair Game”, but the rest tips toward the synthpop of our current era. She’s all over the place because her writing is strong enough to let her dabble in every tide pool, and the cross-pollination just strengthens the album’s heart.
If you think the inaccessibility, the back to her audience, the look-alike wigs, and the bag over her head are media stunts, then you’re right. But if you stop there, then you haven’t yet grasped the spirit of Sia. She’s not controlled by anyone at all, not even herself. She refuses to be herself in the moments that her essence would belong to someone else. When the industry bends to her will, she giggles, shocked that she has the strength to thwart the machine. “Free the Animal” seems to contain some of this unbridled enthusiasm, a xylophone-riddled violent urge to break the binaries of love/hate and life/death. Anyone who has come as close to self-destruction as Sia has knows how close together these edges live, and it’s her ability to convert that conundrum into nearly terrifying electric pop currents that gives this album pure, white hot energy. The pure id refuses to play the ego’s game; the dichotomy of the woman and the star suggests that a division of assets is in order, but it will never come to trial.
These aren’t faux, run-of-the-mill, spoiled complaints — this is real fucking pain. And goddammit do we need to hear it. What’s the difference? It’s the difference between a diamond and a chandelier. It’s the difference between light that burns in purported eternal ecstasy and light for a fixture’s sake, that switches off when the party’s over. Nameless, eternal forever is not where we exist, and that facade seems to have finally grown stale. It’s when the chandelier is off that we discover ourselves, tear-streaked, sweaty, or drunk as we may be. If you’re not careful, 1000 Forms of Fear might just provide the room dark enough for you to face down your fears. This isn’t an arena.
Finally, it’s okay to cry. May I recommend an old favorite to start?
Essential Tracks: “Chandelier”, “Big Girls Cry”, and “Elastic Heart”