Review: Sia — 1000 Forms of Fear

  1. Chandelier
  2. Big Girls Cry
  3. Burn the Pages
  4. Eye of the Needle
  5. Hostage
  6. Straight for the Knife
  7. Fair Game
  8. Elastic Heart
  9. Free the Animal
  10. Fire Meet Gasoline
  11. Cellophane
  12. Dressed in Black

 

Sia is a songwriting powerhouse of addictive downtempo electro-pop. Since her 1997 Australian debut OnlySee, she’s written and co-written hit after hit with the likes of Flo Rida, Britney Spears, and Beyoncé, in addition to writing and recording her own music.

Sia is part of a sad-girl songwriting tradition that’s captivated audiences for decades if not centuries, a tradition whose sirens range from Dinah Washington to Marianne Faithfull to Fiona Apple and Lana Del Rey. As a culture, we have a fetish for female brokenness (to paraphrase author Stacey D’Erasmo), and it makes sense that we eat this kind of music up.

Just because melancholia can be fetishized doesn’t mean it’s not real and relatable. What we want—and what Sia seems to want in 1000 Forms of Fear—is to have agency in our own sadness.

The album’s anthemic opener, “Chandelier,” proclaims that “party girls don’t get hurt,” “I’m gonna live like tomorrow doesn’t exist,” and the titular “I’m gonna swing from the chandelier.” In the entire album, this song conveys the most instrumentality both in its lyrics and in the epic swell of its song structure. However, while the lyrics express agency, the melancholic instrumentals suggest plaintiveness rather than confidence.

The title of “Big Girls Cry” is a kiss-off to The Four Seasons’ lyric girlfriend of 1962 (or perhaps to Fergie’s 2006 insistence that “Big Girls Don’t Cry”). Sia adjusts the tone of the adage, insisting that “big girls cry when their hearts are breaking.” There is no shame, the song suggests, in allowing your emotions to perform themselves. Towards the song’s finale, Sia sings “I wake up” thirteen times in a row, a heartbreaking requiem for the dream life. Again, we’re confronted with the agency of sadness: in more casual terms, it’s her party and she’ll cry if she wants to.

“Burn the Pages” is the first indication that the album has the capacity to be upbeat. We’re thrown into a different state of being as soon as the drum machine kicks in—it’s almost flippant, the steady electro-pop rhythm teasing us into believing that it’s not all bad. Thematically, “Burn the Pages” is similar to “Chandelier”—“we’re letting go tonight,” “burn the pages let ‘em go”—extolling the cathartic possibilities of forgetting the past, but without “Chandelier”’s heartrending melody.

“Eye of the Needle” invites us to smile through the pain with another surging chorus. However, the melody is not as epic as the two opening tracks. The lyrics maintain a theme of weight, of being burdened by the past: “My bag’s heavy, Been filled by me, They weigh me down, Carry them round.” But in “Eye of the Needle,” Sia is not letting the weight go, she’s lamenting the lockbox of her internal organs (“Heart-Shaped Box,” anyone?): “you’re locked inside my heart, your melody’s an art.”

“Hostage” is another light touch on the album, giving listeners an emotional respite from melancholia. It definitely doesn’t make me want to kill myself.

The mournful piano assaults us again on “Straight for the Knife.” Sia repeats the line “swinging from the wreckage,” harkening back to the opening track—“I’m gonna swing from the chandelier.”

Though not one of the album’s more exciting tracks, “Fair Game” provides a straightforward interlude on an otherwise emotionally distraught album. However, the lyrics betray the rationale of the steady drumbeat and soothing strings: “don’t leave me, stay here and frighten me.” The matter-of-fact harmony never overtakes Sia’s swaying vocal melodies—and her vocal melodies are, after all, the reason she is loved.

“Elastic Heart” is a bit of a drag. The verse drags beneath the beat—which may be the point, as the chorus proclaims “I’ve got an elastic heart”—the music stretches like elastic. But even if this is intentional, it’s not particularly engaging. Co-written with The Weeknd and Diplo, the track was originally released as a single for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire soundtrack. While critically acclaimed at the time of the single’s release (Spin called it a “bubbling ballad” and MuuMuse called it “gritty, gorgeous”), within the larger context of this album, it feels flat.

“Free the Animal” again tries to pull the record out of its deep depression. The lyrics suggest the joy of freedom in death, love as death, violent metaphors for romantic submission and happiness: “Blow me up or throw me down or cut my throat,” “Decapitate me!” Sia sings. Freedom in death, agency in sadness.

“Fire Meet Gasoline” is another track full of violent metaphors for love: “it’s dangerous to fall in love,” “burn with me tonight,” “we’re bristling with desire, the pleasure’s pain and fire.”

While a guitar floats hauntingly underneath Sia’s powerful voice, “Cellophane” still feels like a low point on an otherwise intense album. A guitar bends chords with a whammy bar in the background, and perhaps its ethereal tones are intended to make us feel lost, but maybe that’s the problem. Its atmospheric quality is too disconnected to be stimulating.

Every time I hear the music-box opening of “Dressed in Black,” I think King Harvest is about to start singing “Dancing in the Moonlight.” Then suddenly the mega-production of Sia’s chorus hits, and it feels like being in the middle of a gang war. “Dressed in Black” is an appropriately dramatic concluding track, its bridge a wordless, prolonged wail. The lyrics take the violence and romanticism of the preceding tracks into account, and conclude with a hopeful refrain: “I took to the night, I’d given into the fire…and then you crossed my path, you quelled my fears, you made me laugh.”

As we know from the success and ubiquity of Idina Menzel’s “Let it Go,” everybody wants to let things go. Let the past go, let ex-loves go, let former selves fall off and get lost in the wreckage of time (“swinging from the wreckage,” once again).

Taking initiative in tragedy is sometimes all we can hope for—and catharsis is its own initiative. An evocative wail, Sia’s voice expresses heartbreak, and the corresponding desire for catharsis, perfectly. In 1000 Forms of Fear, she struggles with demons both internal and external through forlorn melodies and deep-sinking hooks. If nothing else, swimming through this album allows its listeners to feel autonomy in sadness. The force of Sia’s voice combined with the pop sensibilities of her songwriting meld together into an album worthy of being heard while lying on the floor staring at the ceiling, grasping at agency in sadness through the very act of listening.

Rating: 8/10

 

Deirdre Coyle is a non-practicing mermaid living in New York City. Her work has appeared in theNewerYorkFwriction : ReviewLuna Luna Magazine, and elsewhere. She edits the music writing website Mixtape Methodology. You can find her overseeing the internet at deirdrecoyle.tumblr.com and@DeirdreKoala.

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