Album Review: Sam Smith – Gloria

[Capitol; 2023]

Pop stars reinvent themselves constantly between albums – sometimes in such an extreme way that their discography seems disparate and their alleged ‘authentic’ selves prove to be mere costumes to be discarded with the next era. Singer Sam Smith’s transformation, on the other hand, has been gradual and entirely sincere with their music reflecting their own journey of self-discovery. Initially the blue-eyed soul wailer who lamented the pain of unreciprocated feelings, Sam now embraces their radiant, extroverted and cheeky pop star self on their new album Gloria – albeit, not as tightly as one would hope.

Across the album, Sam lets their freak flag fly as they confidently stride into the realms of disco-pop, electronic and R&B to explore their newfound identity. The album is also more gloriously queer and overt than previous album Love Goes. However, Sam is also unable to fully detach from the safer territories of balladry that established their career which makes Gloria almost equal parts something new and something more of the same. This ultimately leads to the album being their most exciting project when it deviates from expectation yet falling flat when Sam returns to their comfort zone.

The “same” is shown by opening track “Love Me More” – a simple, gospel-tinged piano pop track. On the song, they ask the typical questions of low self-esteem: “Have you ever felt like being somebody else? / Feeling like the mirror isn’t good for your health?” Of course, these messages of empowerment are one-hundred percent sincere from Sam, but still feel too sheepish and soft for an album portended as a new direction for the singer.

In fact, the weaker tracks prove the ones that find Sam treading the similar territory of albums past. For example, “How to Cry” is a ballad driven by acoustic guitar where Sam calls out an ex-partner’s emotional immaturity and the entire toxic relationship associated with it; “How amazing that it’s never you / Who lit the fire / Burnt the whole house down.” It’s a bit more lyrically transparent, finding Sam tapping into anger and exhaustion, but it never quite rises to its potential as an outlet for rage.

“Who You Love” – a collaboration with Ed Sheeran – is a sweet finale to the album but ultimately proves its biggest offender in terms of sonic safety. With soothing piano chords and revered vocals, the song is an exercise in romantic treacle (“It’s not wrong / To want the world for someone / It’s not a feeling you can run from / ’Cause we love who we love”); it wistfully yearns for acceptance, particularly through the lens of queer relationships (“Holding hands in the street / No need to be discreet / Finally feeling free”), but even this aspect is rather subdued. No doubt, this is Sam gunning for their own slot on the wedding playlist (with Ed Sheeran’s presence increasing the chances), yet this manages to be faceless and overshadowed by the more exciting directions this album takes.

Gloria’s strengths and highs are when Sam steps outside the borders of their established canon to explore their more upbeat side. For example, the astronomical success of lead single “Unholy” featuring Kim Petras is the biggest testament to Sam’s success in experimentation consisting of ominous choirs, thumping, jagged beats and urgent synths. Sam gleefully wears the horns in this fun subversion of gospel, describing a man’s secret night life away from his wife and kids; “Mummy don’t know / Daddy’s getting hot / At the body shop / Doing something unholy”. Petras’ feature adds a playful and unabashedly materialistic counterpart (“Give me love, give me Fendi / My Balenciaga daddy”) that meshes well with Sam teasing the “dirty dirty boy” at the focus of this song’s narrative. “Unholy” not only showcases a newfound edge for Sam but, as the lead single for this project, proves that further experimentation could really pay off should they decide to fully commit.

Other deviations from what we would expect from Sam’s music prove excellent, such as the seductive, string-laden “Six Shots” that has them step into sexual confidence (“Better with the lights on / We can play my favourite song / Looking at me, take one shot, two shot / Hit deeper, taste sweeter”). It is a lyrically different and exhilarating path for the singer who once pleadingly sang “I don’t want you to leave / Will you hold my hand?” Instead, here is Sam singing about they “can last so long” (ironically, this song is one of the shortest on the album unfortunately) and weaving double-entendres involving whiskey and “throat heat up.” It is mature, salacious and unexpected.

Further highlights abound on the album such as the excellent “Lost You” – a darker clubby track with amazing string work and an excellent vocal performance from Sam who navigates the pulsating rhythms with flair and emotion as they sing on the chorus: “Baby I’m not ready to lose you yet / Yeah I tried but you know I can’t forget / I’m begging you”. “No God” calls out someone’s pride and inability to accept being wrong; “Just because it’s your opinion doesn’t make it right”. A sassy R&B track, the chorus where Sam tiredly calls out someone (“You’re no god / You’re no teacher / You’re no saint / No leader”) is further amplified by backing vocals who gleefully punctuate their statements with “shut up” and “that’s enough now.”

Another notable song is “Perfect”, which features frequent collaborator Jessie Reyez (who, incidentally, is on three of the album’s tracks) is a slow-burner track that starts off like a conventional trap-influenced R&B track before adding cinematic elements that elevate it. Both Sam and Jessie detail the fatigue that accompanies the partying lifestyle (“I used to love the nightlife / ’Till the nightlife got too lonely”) and contemplate settling down in the wake of self-acceptance (“I wear my flaws like jewellery / And I’m dripping”). This proves the better collaboration for Sam unlike the reggae-influenced “Gimme” that features Jessie and acclaimed Jamaican artist Koffee. The track is fun but suffers from an aggravating chorus that repeats “gimmegimmegimmegimmegimme what I want” that still manages to be an invasive earworm.

The album’s gloriously campy zenith, however, is the exuberantly disco and chic “I’m Not Here To Make Friends”, which wouldn’t be out of place on pop paragon Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure album. Opening with the iconic quote from RuPaul (“If you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you gonna love somebody else?”), Sam clearly considers it a mission statement for their life. What follows is an electrifying, sensual dancefloor anthem about stepping confidently into the club to find somebody to take home; “Everybody’s looking for somebody / For somebody to take home / I’m not the exception / I’m a blessing of a body to love on”. It combines the best aspects of Gloria into one track: confidence, cheekiness, excellent production and catchiness. This would’ve made more sense as the finale of the album: it feels resolved and an indication of Sam facing the future fearlessly.

Gloria proves yet another step forward for Sam Smith but one that still feels hesitant. The truth is that there is an amazing narrative present on this album that would become so much clearer with some tracklist alterations. Perhaps, starting off with the slower conventional ballads and then transitioning more into the extroverted and sexual liberation that is detailed here. There is nothing on this album that doesn’t feel earnest and genuine – these are all aspects of Sam. However, one wishes they would deliver a project that is fully committed to the big pop world. Despite this, Gloria is a frequently satisfying yet uneven statement of self-love and confidence that heralds a new era, both musically and personally, for Sam who proves that it is just as equally an act of vulnerability to show your happiness, as it is your sadness.