1000 Forms of FearHer association with mega-watt superstars including Beyonce, Rihanna and Katy Perry has meant that bipolar, acutely self-conscious and socially anxious singer-songwriter Sia has never been more famous or exposed. A cruel irony or maybe the plan all along? Four years after her last album, “1000 Forms of Fear, her sixth, with its shrewd marketing campaign and consistently, relentlessly mighty major-key choruses means that every hen party and XY and Z Factor hopeful will require a copy, but there’s always been much more to Sia than straightforward show-boating. Slowly veering towards coffee table Dido-isms over the course of her discography, the late noughties saw Sia Furler kick through the inoffensive AOR that always threatened to dominate, and collaborated with guitar and synth pop super-producer Greg Kurstin on 2010’s “We Are Born”. More Cyndi Lauper than Madonna (although a Madonna cover was included, Furler and Kurstin both displaying their collective pop chops) it was more forthright, raucous and brightly commercial than anything before, and still managed to incorporate the power ballads that she is better known for. It was also the album that pushed Sia into semi-retirement from performing, instead concentrating on writing material for other artists, an endeavour that has proved to be more successful than her own solo career.

This sound is both amplified and smoothed out on “1000 Forms of Fear”. “Chandelier” starts off sounding a lot like Rihanna and then it doesn’t sound like Rihanna at all. Once you’ve heard, or experienced, its staggeringly audacious chorus you’re unlikely to forget it and it’s hard to imagine anyone else, let alone Rihanna, sing it. Almost a novelty record, such is its persistent, cartoonish swoops and appropriately high drama; one of the most incredible things about this particular song, one that has already defined and led this era, is how much it is a Sia song and could be only be meant for her. Her vocal eccentricities, and they have always been there but never so pronounced, ensure that this ultimately melancholic song has a clear personality attached to it and could never have been interpreted as effectively by any of its potential owners. 

Big Girls Cry” and “Eye of The Needle” are both unsubtle belters that could soundtrack the next Bridget Jones movie and how you feel about this type of sentimental, rom-com ready music generally will determine how much you enjoy them but they are extremely well done here.  Apart from the terrifically loping and previously released “Elastic Heart” which is co-produced by Diplo, Furler has again paired up with Kurstin and he is at the helm sonically throughout. Less playful and rambunctious than “We Are Born”, there are still some lovely touches here such as the shredded vocals on the chorus of the manically deranged “Free the Animal” which provides some respite from the reliance on a blared super-hook. The seductive, sawing, “Fair Game” shocks with a sudden, sickly , close-up xylophone solo competing with Sia’s distant moans, and an explosive final third, while “Hostage” gallops along with guitars and a retro Motown energy.

Fire Meet Gasoline”, another power ballad and probably the crudest here, highlights the problem of Sia’s omnipresence within the current pop framework. It is without question a song which could be a big hit, it sounds like a million-selling Sia record but one which is already recorded by someone other than her. It sounds a lot like “Diamonds” or “Pretty Hurts”, r’n’b mid-tempos sung by two of the world’s most popular and famous female singers but it doesn’t sound like a record that Sia would ever sing. The same goes for the over-long, over-wrought and noisy album closer “Dressed in Black”. Compare these to the hissing and crackling psychodrama of “Cellophane” (‘Can’t you see I’m wrapped in cellophane, watch the blood pump through my veins, electricity floods my brain, can’t hide the pain’), a rare exercise in restraint here and one of the album’s best songs and the equally macabre, bell-flecked “Straight for the Knife” and it’s clear that some songs are closer to the singer’s own world and personal experiences than others and these are the most successful within this context.

Sia is at the very top of her game with “1000 Forms of Fear”, an album which can admittedly fatigue when played from end to end but when individual songs, or the extremely strong middle section, are played in isolation this is indeed some of the most warming but persistently dark and potent music that Sia has both written and performed. The problem is that we can now clearly see, understand and start to deconstruct her formula, within these twelve songs her technique is laid out bare for all to see. The consistent use of metaphors and building a lyrical theme around them rather than the metaphor fitting the songs’ content (nine out of the twelve titles -- look at them!) and lyrics which are straightforward and defy any kind of confusion or mis-reading, her traditional use of verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus writing and key changes which are predictable but wholly satisfactory; there is no deviation from this pattern. Pop’s most reclusive queen may have her back to the audience but she isn’t the reluctant star she proclaims and “1000 Forms of Fear”is her loudest cry for self-recognition so far and  will undoubtedly be her must successful. Good thing too as it seems Sia has finally become tired of standing in the shadows.

Kiss me OnceThe definitive ‘Kylie Sound’; it’s what Kylie herself and pop obsessives everywhere are desperate to identify, capture and then immortalise and never has this felt more apparent than on “Kiss Me Once”, her twelfth studio album. Her biggest hits are studies in expert song writing, of-the-moment production and perfect execution. From “Hand On my Heart” to “Slow”, “Spinning Around” to  “Can’t Get you Out of My Head”, all effortless sounding pop from an artist who has more than proved her worth as a leader in the field. This album sees her again working with some of the most de rigueur and established writers and producers available with reclusive pop extraordinaire herself, Sia Furler, curating the entire project. Kylie’s first album for Jay Z’s Roc-A-Fella has not come cheap it, seems. Three albums worth of songs have been recorded over the album’s two year creation and many have deemed not worthy of inclusion. For example none of the collaborations with Minogue’s new partner on the reality talent show The Voice, will.i.am, are here, a cause for celebration for some. So what exactly has made the finishing line and does the Kylie Sound of 2014 live up to some of her previous heady years? Yes and no.

The first half of “Kiss Me Once” is indeed the most problematic and some of it is best got out of the way as quickly as possible before the really good stuff starts to cut through and rise to the sheeny, shiny surface. Lead single “Into the Blue” is smart and solid -- very much a ‘Kylie’ song -- and contains a string section that is uplifting and vocal phrasing and beats that are certainly in keeping with current chart fodder. It is however disappointing in its overall niceness and lack of originality.  Kylie’s best songs have also incorporated the unexpected with the familiar and for a song leading us into a new era it is not exactly encouraging. There are then two songs which both, at Sia’s insistence, contain the word ‘sex’ (a third follows later of a different standard entirely) and almost suggest the onset of a concept album. “Sexy Love” comes first and is a wholly derivative Daft Punk/Chic/”Holiday” hybrid which has tons of sunny Kylie enthusiasm in the place where the song should be. “Sexercise”, a Furler co-write, follows and is the most cynical three minutes here. It’s a focus-grouped, trend-chasing attempt at maintaining her Grindr demographic in addition to securing just one more USA hit, urban style. It’s horrible and if you liked Madonna’s “Hard Candy” weaker moments that it may just be your favourite.

Pharrell Williams, currently as ubiquitous a producer as Sia is writer, thankfully comes to the rescue with “I Was Gonna Cancel”. Seems Williams understands the Kylie DNA better than he did Madonna’s. A joyous, confident and supremely carefree disco tune that has a nice pinch of ‘fuck you!’ about it. With its “I Want Your Love” bassline and bells that resemble Blondie’s “Rapture”, this is the first song here where Kylie sounds like you might expect her to given the diverse talent that features here. “Feels So Good” is airy, electronic pop that is both enveloping and aloof in its purpose. It’s a cover version of the Tom Aspaul song “Indiana”, produced by new kid on the block MNEK, with its dreamy chord progression and Kylie’s translucent vocals is one of the best things here. Ariel Rechtshaid of HAIM and Sky Ferreira fame ups the ante further on the tense and metallic “If Only”. Vocal samples are slowed down and sped up and disorientate and muddle and the drums pound like a sci-fi “Hounds of Love”. Truly dynamic and modern sounding with Minogue’s coolly enunciated,heartbreaking admission -- ‘if I set you free and you actually came back to me…if only’. The final song in the sex trilogy “Les Sex” is another triumph. Written by the brilliant and underrated female electro star MDNR, it is a music box sweet and then a squelching and whacking camp delight.

Enrique Iglesias, following The Hurts and Neil Tennant before him, is allocated duetting honours on the deceiving ballad “Beautiful”. It’s deceptive because of its highly vocodered vocals and soulless machines suggesting something macabre and narcotic, when it is in fact excruciatingly sentimental and dull; a low point indeed. “Fine” is a handbag house type affair with lyrics suggesting a positive outlook equals a positive life cliché. It’s not the most adventurous song Kylie has ever made and like a lot of the songs here (see also “Million Miles”)  it does a perfunctory job of producing workman-like album tracks. This leaves the one other Sia Furler penned song, the title track, “Kiss Me Once”. Given Sia’s song-writing style which is now becoming recognisable – dots can be joined that connect “Diamonds” to “Perfume” to “Pretty Hurts” – “Kiss Me Once” is unmistakable only as a Kylie song. Lush and dreamy, romantic and multi-coloured, it will be become a favourite for many. Kylie herself sounds re-assuring and warm and the bells and the beats that surround her balance out any concerns of mawkishness. It is a performance and song that could have come from the best of Minogue’s PWL years, the Cathy Dennis sessions of “Fever” or her first album for Deconstruction; a Kylie Minogue song for all seasons, beautifully realised. 

If there is a comparison to be made between this and another of Kylie’s albums then it would be 2007’s “X”, another album that suffered from a long gestation period with many songs being recorded with a myriad of producers and writers and then a patchy final track-listing that lacked cohesion and quality control. Like “X”, “Kiss Me Once” also features some of the best material that Minogue has put her name to but also some of the worse. Only on her best but not most successful album, 2009’s “Aphrodite” (executive producer, the extraordinary Stuart Price) was this problem averted with a collection of expertly judged songs that formed a tight and unified vision of pop superiority. There is always a degree of good will placed at Kylie Minogue’s tiny feet, she appears loved by many in an industry that excels in back biting and a desire for always younger, fresh talent  and a general sense that the UK, her biggest audience, do not want to see her suffer or to fail. ‘Kiss Me Once’ is not going to change that and is a crowd pleasing but uneven effort at maintaining her status as pop’s eternal princess. Her more interesting songs, of which only a couple appear here, have always hinted at a darker and more introspective and experimental Kylie; maybe it’s time now for her to embrace this side and allow us more than just the glimpse that she’s permitted over her 27 year tenure.