Sam Smith: Gloria review – the lovelorn balladeer turns to the dancefloor
In 2016 the singer Sam Smith made a gaffe that became a huge international incident. Accepting an Oscar for Writing’s on the Wall, a Bond theme tune from the previous year, Smith suggested that the win was a first for an openly gay creative, before dedicating the gong to “the LBGT community around the world”. Smith was factually incorrect – there had been previous out winners – and the singer spent time on Twitter humbly backpedalling.
Fast-forward to 2023 and two sample-filled parentheses on the artist’s fourth album, Gloria, testify to Smith having done their LGBTQIA+ history homework. One, Hurting Interlude, attests to the double agony of losing love and not being able to discuss your pain openly with others. The sampled TV news interview dates from the 1970 New York Gay Pride march.
Another – Dorothy’s Interlude – compresses near-subliminal snippets of gay culture cornerstones: Judy Garland singing Over the Rainbow, Divine in John Waters’s Pink Flamingos, a 1973 speech by activist Sylvia Rivera, and a smidgen of Paris Is Burning, the 1991 documentary on ballroom culture. The message seems to be that Smith, who has identified as non-binary since 2019, is now all caught up – and that they are ready for an uptick in presentational visibility to boot. On a recent Saturday Night Live performance, Smith wore a fluffy pink sculptural gown that opened to reveal trans singer Kim Petras – who guests on Unholy, their smash hit of the end of last year, under Smith’s skirts.
Even though In the Lonely Hour (2014) declared itself to be a howl of pain at unrequited love for a man at the time, it feels as though Gloria may be the end result of a long pupation. On Love Me More, Smith sings about past struggles with self-worth and, more importantly, how they feel now. “But lately it’s not hurting like it did before,” they sing. And with Unholy, Smith and Petras have, in fact, made history – topping the singles chart in the US – a first for an out non-binary artist and a trans singer. The song calls out a man who is cheating on his wife at “the body shop”; its frank discussion of sexuality and outre video seem to have absorbed not only the lessons of LGBTQIA+ history, but of Lil Nas X’s forthright commercial juggernauting as well.
But then Ed Sheeran crops up on Who We Love, bearing the unnecessary gift of a midtempo wet blanket
What’s more, Unholy may well have garnered more than 1.7bn streams and a Grammy nomination precisely because its raunchy maximalism marks such a shift from Smith’s damp hanky of a back catalogue. Smith’s voice is an elastic, expressive instrument that can ache, husk and soar – sometimes in the same breath. But their career to date has relied heavily on the evergreen appeal of heartworn balladry, classicist fare whose mild musical manners won’t give anyone a conniption. Smith has been inching away from retro heartache for some time – Promises, Smith’s co-sign with Calvin Harris five years ago, was arguably a tipping point - but Gloria seeks to drag Smith out of their funk and reinvent them as a dancefloor contender, no longer a homebody reeling from lost love but one banging out the feelgood bpms.
And largely, the album is persuasive. Smith is an easy fit for disco pop; the sultry, shouty I’m Not Here to Make Friends finds them on the hunt for physical gratification rather than anything more. Even more upfront is the mischievous, tropical pop-inflected Gimme, where Smith’s vocals drip with yearning and Canadian singer Jessie Reyez and dancehall MC Koffee provide nasty-girl backup. The tempo might be slower, but Six Shots is another digital-era come-hither that owes far more to the sexed-up soul of D’Angelo than it does the stuff on Radio 2.
Frustration then sets in. Why not go the whole hog and make the Sam Smith equivalent of Renaissance, Beyoncé’s all-partying shakedown of 2022? Did no one notice a song called How to Cry on the track listing and stage an intervention? Although it harks backwards rather than forwards, the a cappella title track itself is more compelling, however. Gloria is the name of an energy – possibly feminine, possibly of nature – that Smith says has been freed inside themself. The song is one of praise, where Smith solos soulfully all over the higher and lower voices of a choir recorded at the Saffron Walden church in Essex that Smith attended as a child.
But then Ed Sheeran crops up on Who We Love, bearing the unnecessary gift of a midtempo wet blanket. Sheeran, who once gave Smith a 6ft 2in penis statue in marble, is no stranger to frisky club pop. Sure, Smith sings about feeling free to love who they love, but you’d think Sheeran might have realised something slinky might have been more apposite on an album dedicated to fun – and liberation from the past.