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Track Review

Adele didn't want to sing "Alive."

Neither did Rihanna.

So the 39-year-old Australian singer who's arguably best known for wearing wigs to shield her visage from the public decided she'd just go ahead and record the song she co-wrote.

And given Sia's gutsy focus on survival amid isolation here, somehow it seems appropriate that the song Adele and Rihanna rejected has become a hit anyway.

Alone but Alive

A mid-tempo, synth-pop canvas provides the sonic backdrop for Sia's plaintive, confessional voice—and her similarly raw emotions. The story she tells isn't pretty. "I was born in a thunderstorm," she begins. "I grew up overnight/I played alone/I'm playing on my own/I survived."

It's a portrait of someone who's utterly without relational connection. And even though the song was reportedly supposed to reflect Adele's life, not Sia's, it's not hard to see how it might also be a good fit for someone who's said to be so phobic about fame she feels the need to hide her face most of the time. Beneath her nearly trademark wigs (the one she's currently sporting is half black, half platinum blonde), though, lies a fierce singer who's determined to live life on her own terms.

The second verse continues to narrate a life of deprivation and disappointment. "I wanted everything I never had," Sia tells us. "Like the love that comes with light/I wore envy, and I hated that/But I survived." And things get even darker in the third, as Sia alludes to residing emotionally in a hellish place ("I had a one-way ticket to a place where all the demons go/Where the wind don't change/And nothing in the grass can ever grow/No hope, just lies"). No matter how much that kind of existence hurts, Sia says that she was taught to keep her emotions buried and hidden ("And you're taught to cry in your pillow").

It's not until we get to the song's simple chorus that Sia's determination to overcome gets put on megawatt display. "I'm still breathing," she sings four times, her voice building. "I'm alive," she screams four more.

That strength, the next verse tells us, comes from within her ("I found solace in the strangest place/Way in the back of my mind/I saw my life in a stranger's face/And it was mine"). A bit later, she tells someone (perhaps a parent, perhaps an old flame) that she's succeeded despite their insistence that she'd fail ("But you never noticed that I was in pain/I knew what I wanted, I went in and got it/Did all the things that you said that I wouldn't/I told you that I would never be forgotten").

Sia polishes off the last verse with this triumphant-but-accusatory zinger: "And all in spite of you/And I'm still breathing."

Alive but Alone

Sia's ferocious determination is absolutely admirable. But the insidious isolation she describes in this song looms just as large. Her perseverance has not been rewarded with the intimacy she longs for. She's alive as her powerful voice fades away in this empowerment anthem, but she's still very much alone.

The song's Spartan video juxtaposes these two jarring elements: fierce perseverance and dismal disconnection. We see a young Asian girl wearing a replica of Sia's most recent wig—a symbolic stand-in for the camera-shy singer. She's doggedly working through a series of martial arts positions and maneuvers … completely alone in a dark-and-dingy dojo. The child's piercing eyes and emphatic martial maneuvers illustrate the kind of combat Sia's survived.

She is fierce. She is alone.

Is that inspiring? Depressing? Both at the same time? How listeners and viewers respond to this undeniably melancholy empowerment anthem and its video may very well depend upon how deeply they relate to the kind of brutal isolation Sia narrates.

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Top 20 iTunes track.

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September 24, 2015

On Video

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Adam R. Holz

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