Aesthetics have been intertwined with pop music since, well, the beginning of pop music; Elvis shook his hips onstage and millions of fans swooned, while decades later The Artist Formerly Known as Prince used an unpronounceable symbol to make his mark amidst the purple paisley. And don’t even get me started on Madonna.
Sia is a unique case because her choice of aesthetic is arguably a rejection of it. In the era when 1000 Forms of Fear came out, she presented herself as a recluse – even while onstage. She wore giant wigs that obscured her face and didn’t even appear in her own music videos. That was left to Dance Moms alum Maddie Ziegler. Both bizarre choices, but by taking herself out of the equation, Sia forced us to focus on the music itself.
The beats on the album are excellent trip-hop with Top 100 sensibilities: just listen to “Chandelier.” Sia knows how to make that work for her, even when she’s got full-size choruses; we never feel overwhelmed or like her voice is competing with those snaps and hooks. One doesn’t drown out the other.
For me, what stands out on this album is Sia’s voice. It’s throaty and rich. She’s got great range, too; most of the time her voice is in a deeper register, but on the chorus of “Chandelier,” she allows it to edge into a crack. It’s well-suited to the lyrical content of that song, too. She sings, “Party girls don’t get hurt,” and that deep voice does sound drunk, like she’s trying to reassure herself even as she “throw[s] them back till I lose count.” That inner struggle continues in “Elastic Heart.” “I’ve got thick skin and an elastic heart,” Sia tells us. Yet throughout the song she wonders if this relationship might finally be the test of that strength: “But there were so many red flags.”
“Big Girls Cry” sums up the album’s themes. Even though she’s a tough girl, Sia’s in pain, and the champagne and high life won’t wash that away. She’s weighed down by baggage (“Eye of the Needle”) and working through a toxic relationship (“Flame Meet Gasoline”). It’s all those different forms of fear coming to life, just like the album title.