"Party girls don't get hurt," Sia claims in her Top 20 summer hit "Chandelier," which also opens her new album. It's an idea she spends the rest of "1000 Forms of Fear" disproving.
An Australian singer and songwriter now based in Los Angeles, Sia has helped create some of the biggest, brightest pop tunes of the last few years, including Rihanna's "Diamonds," Flo Rida's "Wild Ones" and "Titanium" by the French DJ David Guetta, who used Sia's demo vocals on the final track after abandoning a performance he'd solicited from Mary J. Blige. (The result sold nearly 4 million copies.)
Yet in her own work Sia explores the flip side of the steely bravado she summons for others. Her delicate ballad "Breathe Me," which went viral in 2005 after it was featured in the final episode of HBO's "Six Feet Under," starts out, "Help, I have done it again." And throughout "1000 Forms of Fear," her sixth studio disc, she confesses to loving with the kind of intensity that virtually guarantees heartbreak.
"Look at me, I'm such a basket case," Sia sings in "Cellophane," before specifying further: "a basket filled with pain."
All that misery might've made for a grueling listen. But Sia, whose last name is Furler, frames her pain with vivid imagery that keeps the sensation alive.
In "Elastic Heart" she's "like a rubber band until you pull too hard"; in "Hostage," "the secret life of us keeps me in handcuffs." "Free the Animal" pleads for a lover's attention with a series of increasingly frantic commands. "Detonate me / Shoot me like a cannonball," she sings, "Decapitate me / Hit me like a baseball."
Sia uses similarly violent language in the chorus of "Straight for the Knife" but goes disarmingly intimate in the verse as she recounts dressing for a date: "Put a bow in my hair, wore pretty underwear / Hoping you might take it off." The contrast recalls "Perfume," the creepy-sensual single Sia co-wrote last year for Britney Spears.
"1000 Forms of Fear" benefits too from the singer's squeaky, scratchy vocal tone and from ear-grabbing production touches by her creative partner, Greg Kurstin.
In "Big Girls Cry" he lightens a booming midtempo beat with old-timey piano plinks; "Cellophane" has shimmering tremolo guitar and a crinkling sound that might be the material in the song's title. And though it puts across some of the album's darkest thoughts, "Hostage" bops like a tidy garage-pop song by the Strokes – no wonder, since Sia co-wrote it with Nick Valensi, one of that band's two guitarists.
"It all begins with just one kiss," Sia sings, and for her the hurt is never far behind.
"1000 Forms of Fear"
3 stars out of 4