When Sam Smith announced this album in October, they described it as “an emotional, sexual and spiritual liberation” – quite an audacious strapline. “Oddly, it feels like my first-ever record,” added the Oscar and Grammy-winning singer. “And it feels like a coming of age.” Of course, no pop star sells their latest album by calling it “more of the same”, but Smith hasn’t oversold this one. ‘Gloria’ really is the most surprising, satisfying and vital work of their career.
Smith broke into the mainstream with lovelorn ballads like 2014’s ‘Stay With Me’, a gospel-flecked tearjerker from their multi-platinum debut ‘In The Lonely Hour’. But over time, they have become more sonically adventurous. Second LP ‘The Thrill Of It All’, released in 2017, featured contributions from R&B pioneer Timbaland and Frank Ocean producer Malay that added fresher textures to Smith’s sorrowful bops.
Then, on 2020’s ‘Love Goes’, Smith cranked up the tempo with excursions into disco (‘Diamonds’), Afrobeats (‘My Oasis’) and Calvin Harris-produced house (‘Promises’). Smith, who had come out as non-binary a year earlier, sounded as though they were having more fun. During this era, they even put out a creditable cover of Donna Summer’s euphoric queer classic ‘I Feel Love’, though sadly it didn’t make the album’s final tracklist.
Smith is no longer just the heartbreak purveyor who internet trolls once claimed was really Adele in disguise. But despite their evolution, this album’s huge hit single ‘Unholy’, a risqué duet with Kim Petras that first popped off on TikTok, still came as a shock. “Mummy don’t know Daddy’s getting hot at the Body Shop,” Smith sings over a grinding bassline, name-checking the first all-nude strip club on L.A.’s famed Sunset Strip. No one would ever have guessed that Smith would score their first US number one with a song this suggestive.
‘Unholy’ isn’t the only sex-positive moment on ‘Gloria’, an album named after what Smith calls the “fighter voice” inside them. “Voyeurs are watching us, giving me such a rush,” they sing on the dancehall-flavoured ‘Gimme’, a collaboration with Canadian singer Jessie Reyez and Jamaican star Koffee. Reyez’s booty-shaking hook – “Gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme what I want, what I want!” – is an unapologetic expression of sexual desire.
However, ‘Gloria’ isn’t really an album about getting off. At heart, it’s a personal exploration of the broader queer experience that recalls George Michael‘s classic 1996 album ‘Older’. Smith connects themselves to their queer forebears with an interlude featuring snippets of Judy Garland singing ‘Over The Rainbow’ and a 1973 speech by American trans rights activist Sylvia Rivera. Perhaps inevitably, we also get RuPaul telling us: “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you gonna love somebody else?”
‘Gloria’ doesn’t sound like ‘Older’, but Smith and regular collaborators Jimmy Napes and StarGate have taken a similar musical approach by mixing classy downbeat pop with moments of disco catharsis. ‘Lose You’ sets a classic Sam Smith breakup song to a dance dark pulse, while the Harris-produced ‘I’m Not Here To Make Friends’ has a wicked hint of “demon twink” energy. “30 almost got me and I’m so over love songs,” Smith sings joyously.
Elsewhere, Smith isn’t afraid to get vulnerable. On ‘How To Cry’, a lovely slice of acoustic guitar pop, they sing about a possibly coercive relationship with a partner hobbled by toxic masculinity. “I keep secrets from my family, all the ways you’ve been controlling me,” they sing tenderly. The equally stripped-back ‘Perfect’ captures the ennui felt by any queer person who seeks salvation on the dance floor. “I used to love the nightlife, ’til the night life got too lonely,” they sigh. “Might be time for the right guy.”
‘Who We Love’, a sweet but slightly cheesy duet with Ed Sheeran, is less nuanced: come Pride season, corporations will be queuing up to use its well-meaning #LoveIsEqual message. But even here Smith offers some authentically tender detail. “Holding hands in the street, no need to be discreet, finally feeling free,” they sing blissfully.
Smith’s soulful voice is stunning throughout, and it’s surely a sign of confidence that several songs feature such prominent and intricate backing vocals. When you’re comfortable in yourself, you don’t always have to push to the front. Smith’s heavenly tone also helps to sell the odd bland line. “Have you ever felt like being somebody else? Feeling like the mirror isn’t good for your health?” they sing on ‘Love Me More’. It’s an admirable sentiment expressed with all the flair of a skincare advert.
Still, that’s a rare hollow moment on an album that’s rich musically, thematically and above all, emotionally. Sam Smith has never sounded better because they’ve never been more themselves.
- Release date: January 27, 2023
- Record label: Capitol Records/EMI