Sam Smith Revels In Self-Acceptance & Sexual Healing On Gloria

Sam Smith Revels In Self-Acceptance & Sexual Healing On Gloria

The Sam Smith of 2023 has come a long way from the Sam Smith who sang on Disclosure’s 2012 hit “Latch,” then parlayed that success into 2014’s Grammy-winning neo-soul triumph In The Lonely Hour. The Sam Smith of yesteryear was a balladeer, a brokenhearted sentimentalist praying for salvation by way of romantic love. Three albums later, that Smith is still here, but they’ve shed a few layers and come bursting out on the other side, liberated and dancing, relishing in their freedom, sexuality, personhood, and maximalist artistry. The Smith who made Gloria, out today, is confident, inspired, and excited for the future.

This is not to say that one Smith is “better” than the other. Just as it doesn’t help anyone to compare past selves to their current selves, it doesn’t make sense to judge Sam Smith’s Gloria era against their ’10s breakout moment — the one where Smith earned heaps of (well-deserved) praise and industry awards for their tearful tenor and anguished ballads, which were frequently lumped in with all things Adele. (The comparisons persist; on Drew Barrymore’s talk show, Smith recently addressed a conspiracy theory that they’re just Adele in drag.)

Since their commercial breakthrough, Smith has achieved pop industry nirvana on more than one occasion, collecting four Grammys and singing 2015’s Bond theme “Writing’s On The Wall,” which became the first franchise theme to top the UK chart and made Smith an Oscar winner (Best Original Song in 2016). Their 2017 sophomore album, The Thrill Of It All, was essentially a Lonely Hour redux — another batch of tormented sad boi ballads. It earned critical praise on the strength of Lonely Hour but re-reading the reviews, it’s clear journalists were hoping for a stronger step forward instead of “hey, that last thing really worked, so let’s give the people some more of that thing.”

In 2019, Smith came out as non-binary (they/them pronouns), and the following year shared Love Goes, a third LP that found Smith playing with a few new styles: lite dancehall on “My Oasis” featuring Burna Boy, disco and dance on “Diamonds,” and pop/R&B on the Normani-featured bop “Dancing With A Stranger.” Despite the sonic change-ups, thematically Love Goes continued to find Smith in familiar territory. (In my mind, I’m calling this tendency an Unrequited Love Albatross.)

With all that in mind, I think most Smith fans (excuse me, Sailors) will be delighted to see what their fave has done on Gloria, which is proud, loud, and brimming with optimism and drama. Which, of course, is the point. As Smith told British GQ last fall, “I love, I love, I love the drama. Not the drama as in, like, gossip or anything mean or hateful… I like drama as in Queen Elizabeth I drama. Tudor clothes. Phantom Of The Opera. Or, like, Liberace.”

Smith is also leaning harder into the dance/disco/club scene – a 2020s trend that Dua Lipa and Jessie Ware helped repopularize on 2021’s Future Nostalgia and 2020’s What’s Your Pleasure, respectively, and Beyoncé blasted into the stratosphere on last year’s Renaissance. With help from longtime collaborators Jimmy Napes, Stargate, and ILYA, and some additional input from Los Hendrix, Max Martin, and “Promises” partner Calvin Harris, Smith winds up the mirrorball and sets it free — kind of like one of those self-rolling tennis balls TikTok made me buy for my dog. Unlike my dog, who is scared of the tennis ball that rolls by itself, fans will no doubt flock to Smith’s Gloria experience, which radiates jubilation.

The vibe shift is no accident. “I’d written so many heartbreak songs and confessional songs that weren’t just about my heartbreak, but other people’s,” Smith recently told Billboard. “I wanted to explore a more confident voice and a voice that was stronger, honestly.”

Perhaps Capitol Records sensed that, in the widest commercial sense, such a pivot would send a shockwave or two across mainstream audiences, so the first thing they released from Gloria (as well as the album’s opening track) is “Love Me More,” an ode to self-acceptance that sinks back into Smith’s beloved gospel roots. Fortunately for Smith, the lyrics immediately transmit personal growth — the sort that anyone who has ever been their own worst critic will find relatable. “Every day I’m tryin’ not to hate myself/ But lately, it’s not hurtin’ like it did before/ Maybe I am learning how to love me more.” Smith’s famous tenor, too, sells the sentiment and keeps it from sounding like a HomeGoods decorative slogan.

The album’s next song, “No God,” retools Smith’s gospel harmonies into something more distinctly modern. Here, defiant voices form a catchy call-and-response as Smith intones over a slick backing beat and moody key chords. The “No God” melody flows right into a string-accompanied “Hurting Interlude” — the only voice here is a sample from activist filmmaker Lilli Vincenz’s 1970 documentary Gay And Proud.

Gloria takes its time merging into full-blown dance mode, but “Lose You” takes you there with a pulsing rhythm, flowing synths, dramatic strings, and soaring vocals that place extra emphasis on “you-ou-ou” in a way that reminds me of Cher’s electropop classic “Believe.” Later, “Perfect” (featuring a nice guest spot from Jessie Reyez) tonally pulls back with an electropop/R&B duet about embracing the stuff that makes you human. The best thing about “Perfect” is easily its over-the-top guitar solo, which gently gives way to more orchestral strings and a few plaintive piano chords. It’s so, so extra, but Smith justifies it all being there.

The same is true of Billboard #1 smash “Unholy,” which, to be honest, I have conflicting feelings about. On one hand, that sucker’s an earworm — a word I dislike as a synonym for “catchy” but feels appropriate when you both love and hate a song in equal measure. “Unholy” is pure excess — a brash, sexy, wholly unapologetic stomp into Caligula’s closet. I partially hate it for its hostile takeover in my brain, most likely as I try to fall asleep at 2AM on a Wednesday. I also can’t sort out how I feel about Kim Petras, an artist whose music I adore (please listen to early cuts like “Heart To Break,” “All The Time,” her Cheat Codes collab “Feeling Of Falling,” or “1,2,3 Dayz Up” featuring the late, great SOPHIE). I’m beyond psyched that she’s going to perform at the Grammys with Smith next week. But then there’s the Dr. Luke of it all. (Dr. Luke did not have anything to do with “Unholy,” but the two have a long history of working together. For more backstory, see this 2019 pop column from my predecessor Chris DeVille.) Anyway, Kim Petras, problematic fave. Moving on.

Jessie Reyez shows up again on the Koffee-assisted “Gimme,” Smith’s latest single, which perspires and undulates with a dancehall rhythm and come-hither lyrics. (Can you tell I prefer “Gimme” to “Unholy”?) And then, with a perfectly placed Paris Is Burning sample, “I’m Not Here To Make Friends” blasts its way onto the ballroom floor with an outpouring of disco strings and one-night-stand hedonism. (After three albums’ worth of pining, it’s easy cheerlead Smith as they go out in search of a short-term “lov-ah.”)

My only real gripe with Gloria is the schmaltzy closer, “Who We Love” (*clears throat* that’s WHOM we love). I beg of Smith, pleeeeeease resist calling Ed Sheeran next time. You don’t need him! You’re dousing the pancakes with too much syrup! I totally appreciate this song’s sentiment, which is self-evident, re: the title. But tacking Sheeran on there is completely unnecessary. I know Gloria is a “more is more” album, but plopping Sheeran on here feels — I don’t know, emotionally manipulative? Like watching too many episodes of This Is Us or those TikToks of a dying dog’s last day before it crosses the rainbow bridge. Anyway, thank you, Sheeran, for reminding us that love is love is love. Hallmark Cards, Inc. and the greater wedding industrial complex thank you too.

The cornball (but well-intentioned) “Who We Love” might’ve caused my teeth to rot just now, but it’s really the tracklist’s only outlier. Taken as a whole, Gloria is the richest, most complex (emotionally and sonically) project Smith has ever done. More than a decade into their career, it’s an achievement in growth. We can tangibly see and hear the way Smith has developed both as an artist and a person. Joy looks wonderful on them.


Gracie Abrams – “Where Do We Go Now?”
First, I have to say, wow: Gracie Abrams got Gia Coppola to direct this music video! Work that nepo baby status, girl. (No, really. If you can get it, then get it.) But in all seriousness, “Where Do We Go Now?” is a lush and delicately layered song with Abrams’ breathy vocals operating at full, aching vulnerability.

Ava Max – “One Of Us”
Max soars right out of the gate on “One Of Us,” a slick, club-ready dance-pop bop with a highly chantable chorus to boot.

Gen Neo – Like California (feat. DeVita)
Singaporean singer-songwriter Gen Neo leans harder into the English music market with this vibey R&B tune that also features DeVita, a South Korean hip-hop performer. Together, they summon SoCal sunlight and warmth with a laid-back beat and effortless harmonies.

SG Lewis – “Fever Dreamer” (Feat. Charlotte Day Wilson & Channel Tres)
Despite what the modern pop music industry may think, collabs are not always a great idea. SG Lewis’ disco gem “Fever Dreamer” is, however, a well-executed one. R&B singer Charlotte Day Wilson carries the pulsating chorus into outer space, and Channel Tres’ spoken-word portion is giving Real McCoy circa “Another Night” — in a good way.

Lonnie – “One Night Stand”
I never – and I mean never – expected to hear the Cardigans’ “Lovefool” utilized quite this way, but Lonnie nails it on this butter-smooth ballad about being all in on someone who, shall we say, has a more temporary agenda.

Kali Uchis – “I Wish You Roses”
“I wish you roses while you can still smell them.” Heh. I love the secretly snipey lyrics in Kali’s woozy, washed-out track about saying you wish an ex the best — but as long as the best is also the worst.

Kim Petras – “brrr”
My problematic fave! Petras has another banger here — and I like that it thematically mirrors 2019’s “Icy.”

Coco Jones – “Fallin”
“Fallin” has a deliciously sultry backing track, but it’s really Coco Jones’ voice that sells it. The former Disney personality, who is now signed with Def Jam, has pipes for days, and that range transmits innocence, sensitivity, and arousal all in one song.

TAEYANG & Jimin of BTS – “Vibe”
“Vibe” takes clear cues from Dangerous-era Michael Jackson. Plus it sounds like TAEYANG and Jimin are genuinely feeling their ‘90s R&B/pop backing track, which contracts and expands, shape-shifts, and pulls the listener in with effortless magnetism.

Sydney Rose – “tell him i miss him”
This was a lovely and delicate surprise. “Tell him i miss him” is an achingly spare song that slowly layers on more instruments and effects without losing any heart.


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