Sam Smith Seeks Self-Acceptance and Catharsis, and a Sound to Match
Since the release of Sam Smith’s soulful 2014 smash “Stay With Me,” the British singer and songwriter has been pop’s most high-profile balladeer of queer heartbreak, a crooner with a pure, buttery tone and an agile vocal range that can swoop from the depths of despair to an airy, yearning falsetto. Now, on the musician’s more upbeat and sensual fourth album, “Gloria,” Smith, who uses they/them pronouns, is singing a less dour tune.
The album’s first single, “Love Me More,” is a bright, springy ode to self-acceptance, inspired by Smith’s increasing vulnerability in talking about their longtime struggles with body image. “Every day I’m trying not to hate myself,” they sing with wrenching candor, “but lately it’s not hurting like it did before.” “Love Me More” transcends the limitations of one-dimensional “empowerment pop” because it doesn’t downplay the intensity of Smith’s challenges and, refreshingly, suggests that self-love is an ongoing process.
But the “Gloria” song that became Smith’s first No. 1 hit in the United States is something else entirely: “Unholy,” a campy, devilish romp with a hook that cleverly utilizes the double harmonic scale and features a guest verse from the German pop singer Kim Petras. (Smith and Petras became the first nonbinary person and the first openly transgender woman to reach the top of the Hot 100.) The appeal of “Unholy” comes from the way it wags a lusty finger at holier-than-thou puritanism and presents queerness as the basis of aesthetic liberation. “Mummy don’t know daddy’s getting hot at the body shop,” Smith sings with a knowing, beckoning wink. It sounds like the most fun they’ve ever had on a song.
Much of “Gloria” aims for a similar sense of ecstatic catharsis and looks for it where Smith’s career began: on the dance floor. The forlorn pianos and light percussion of Smith’s signature ballads have largely been swapped out for synthesizers and electronic beats. The thumping neo-house “Lose You” harkens back to Smith’s early breakout appearances on U.K. dance hits like Disclosure’s “Latch” and Naughty Boy’s “La La La,” while the sleek, glittery “I’m Not Here to Make Friends” (which was produced by the E.D.M. hitmaker Calvin Harris) taps into the pop-disco revival ignited by artists like Dua Lipa and Jessie Ware, taking its shout-along hook from a common reality show refrain.
As on “Unholy,” Smith’s arrangements often feature prominent and inventive use of backing singers. While some pop musicians of more limited vocal range employ choirs to hit notes they cannot reach, the nimble-voiced Smith always sounds, more organically, like a member of the chorus who has simply stepped to the forefront for a solo. Smith hammers that point home on the grandiose hymn “Gloria,” but makes it more subtly and effectively on the excellent “No God,” a moody, midtempo R&B number that reads a stubborn ex-lover the riot act. “You’re no god, you’re no teacher, you’re no saint, you’re no leader,” Smith sings with silky venom, while a group of bass vocalists offer some sonorous no-no-no-nos in agreement.
But the quality varies across the 12-track album, which Smith wrote with their longtime collaborator Jimmy Napes and a rotating cast of other contributors. The dancehall-influenced “Gimme” has the libidinousness of “Unholy” but little of its charm, centered around a gratingly repetitive hook from the Canadian musician Jessie Reyez, who also makes an appearance on the similarly uninspired “Perfect.” The album’s final track, “Who We Love,” is its gravest misstep, a schmaltzy duet with Ed Sheeran that plays it safe and blunts the force of Smith’s previously idiosyncrasy. “It’s not a feeling you can run from, ’cause we love who we love,” Smith and Sheeran sing, blandly sloganeering. If it’s meant to be a romantic duet between them, it lacks a spark. If, more likely, it’s meant to be a message of allyship from a straight artist, it’s giving Macklemore.
“Gloria” has moments of boldness, but its occasional lapses into generics keep it from feeling like a major personal statement. “Nobody taught you how to cry, but somebody showed you how to lie,” Smith sings on the acoustic-guitar-driven “How to Cry,” a well-intentioned call for vulnerability that nonetheless revolves around a simplistic melody and rhymes so obvious, the listener will be able to predict them before each line ends. Smith’s voice, as ever, is effortlessly dazzling, but it can certainly handle more challenging material. Maybe they are an Elton John in need of a Bernie Taupin.