Sia, ‘This Is Acting’
Before she rebranded herself as a behind-the-scenes scribe for mainstream pop giants, Sia reveled in authenticity. Every feeling was pure – and even if it didn’t reflect her life, you believed it could. Remember “Breathe Me”? There was a big sigh, and then she broke you into a million sad, empowered pieces as she came clean one key change at a time. These days, having constructed a persona that’s distant and vague, that same Sia hides behind actual veils so as not to reveal too much of herself, generating hits for radio heavyweights like Adele and Beyonce. So what happens when they and other pop stars pass on your songs? If you’re Sia, you record them yourself. Once again, Sia, following “1000 Forms of Fear,” is larger than life. It’s a role she’s fine at playing – her distinctive warble packs a powerful punch – but it has become apparent that the same mask concealing her face is also obscuring the fact that Sia is a gifted storyteller full of things to say about herself. So if this is, indeed, acting, the bump-and-grind windup “Move Your Body” is either an Oscar winner… or a Razzie contender, depending on how you look at it. Same with “Sweet Design,” a very Bey-during-“B’Day” banger, with Sia singing contrived lines like, “Word travels fast when you’ve got an ass like mine.” Not that Sia doesn’t have a great ass, but it’s a hard, silly sell for an artist not known for such boasts. Her strengths lie in underdog anthems like “Bird Set Free,” where she pushes through the cage door and unleashes herself, singing, “I find myself in my melodies.” There are 11 other songs after “Bird Set Free,” none of them great, leaving you thinking: If only they, too, could find her essence again.
Panic! at the Disco, ‘Death of a Bachelor’
You know how it goes with pop bands: Eventually the frontman becomes this red-hot superstud star whose spotlight-stealing ways make everyone forget the names of the other band members… or that they exist. Just ask Adam Levine. Unlike Levine, though, Panic! at the Disco’s most delicious dish, Brendon Urie, knows it’s time to seize his solo status and move on. So with “Death of a Bachelor,” he has. On his own, but still under the Panic! moniker, Urie doesn’t reshape the band considerably, at least not for now, not while he establishes himself as the Brendon Urie Band. It’s clear from this solo release, though, that all his shameless pop dreams are coming true, which is to say Urie is fixated on being your power-pop god. Boisterous rock booms throughout the album’s front-end, but so much of it is empty-calorie ear candy that fans will be longing for days of yore, when Ryan Ross and the rest of the band’s pre-breakup lineup were also a part of the creative process. With “Death of a Bachelor,” where’s the ambition that once set Panic! apart from other dude bands? The band’s delightfully wonky wordplay? Not on “Victorious,” the album’s first cheapshot of a single, a glossy grab stuck on a sound that’s highly commercial and mind-numbingly insipid. It rolls right into the grungy piano-interrupted “Don’t Threaten Me with a Good Time,” better but typical. “Crazy=Genius” at least breaks the been-there-done-that mold with a fun old-timey swing sound, and it’s good to hear Urie take it down several notches on “Impossible Dream.” Still, though, “Death of a Bachelor” is a backwards evolution for a man still conceptualizing what it means to be on his own.
Elton John, ‘Wonderful Crazy Night’
No, Elton John hasn’t had one too many – that face of his, all blithe and framed by pieces of an erupted rainbow to further emphasize the piano man’s state of euphoria, is just his face. It’s the face of a married man. It’s the face of love. It’s the face of “I have nothing to prove.” And so on Elton’s 33rd album, “Wonderful Crazy Night,” he doesn’t. He’s Elton John, and, at this point, isn’t that enough? A unicorn of an album, Elton lets himself go, jetting back to his beginnings for a blissed-out, ’70s-inspired rock ‘n’ roll romp where he beams and bounces. From the ebullient title track to the coda’s lovey-dovey lyric “you’re an open chord I’m gonna play all day,” Elton’s shine is affected and infectious.
Lucinda Williams, ‘The Ghosts of Highway 20’
Lucinda Williams is living. You can hear it in her voice, wrinkled and drunk. But death looms on the alt-icon’s latest, soused in the smoky Americana sound she’s forged for more than three decades. She’s knocking on the “Doors of Heaven,” riffing her way to the finish line with a surprisingly not-macabre Southern-rooted rollick. It’s a striking contrast to “If There’s a Heaven,” a pained elegy. Death evokes childhood nostalgia on the wistful memoir “Louisiana,” as Williams recalls growing up and experiencing both the “sweetness” and the “rough.” Now 63, Williams comes to a powerful understanding on “The Ghosts of Highway 20” that you can’t have one without the other.