Since Sam Smith crooned their way into public consciousness with a guest feature on Disclosure’s 2012 song ‘Latch’ – a rare dance track that you’d equally hear in a Dalston bar as much as you would a Pryzm nightclub at the time – it always seemed a voice destined for greatness.
Thus it’s been proven so. Album sales of 37 million, 50 billion career streams and number one Billboard 200 spots for their debut and sophomore albums – 2014’s In The Lonely Hour and 2017’s The Thrill Of It All, respectively – don’t come lightly.
And there are more unique achievements that paint a picture of cultural prestige, too, including an Oscar and a Golden Globe for ‘The Writing’s On The Wall’, the tune for Bond film Spectre – a track which became the first James Bond Theme to reach No.1 on the UK Charts, bagging Smith one of two of their current Guinness World Records. (The other was for the most consecutive weeks in the UK Top 10 Album Charts, achieved with In The Lonely Hour).
Two shows at The Royal Albert Hall last year signified respect for Smith at the crème de la crème of art institutions as well.
But it’s fair to say Smith’s public reputation outside of music has met its fair share of snags. Not only did he mistakenly claim to be the first openly gay man to pick up an Oscar, but he also drew the ire of the public (and one Piers Morgan) when he shared a picture of his ‘quarantine meltdown’ – which was up there with the litany of celebs singing ‘Imagine’ with its state of cringe-worthiness.
More recently, as one of the most vocal proponents for having gender-neutral prizes at the BRITs, he became a lightning rod for criticism after the awards panel failed to nominate a single woman for Artist of the Year. In truth, such abject failure lies squarely with the voting panel themselves, but Smith’s name arose as something of a scapegoat, even if they did criticise the oversight themself.
Thankfully, on Gloria, we find the 30-year-old in a far more joyous, less self-indulgent place, seemingly casting all criticisms aside. Opening track ‘Love Me More’ sets the tone for this, as Smith, who came out as non-binary in 2019 “after a lifetime of being at war with [their] gender, ” reveals their newfound self-acceptance. “Lately, it’s not hurtin’ like it did before / Maybe I am learning how to love me more,” Smith proudly declares above a slow tempo beat on a track which begins with an organ and ends with a rousing choir.
In fact, a gospel aspect appears more than once on the album. For instance, the title track ‘Gloria’ even enlists the hymnal work of Smith’s childhood church in Saffron Walden. It’s a short track, almost an interlude of sorts, but at least showcases Smith’s never-in-doubt vocal range.
And just as there are the doors of the church, so too is there sin and salaciousness, notably (and rather obviously, given its title) on the chart-topping hit ‘Unholy’. Featuring LA-based German artist Kim Petras, the track made history twice as the first song to top the Hot 100 by both a publicly non-binary and a transgender soloist; its stop-start synth-pop tells the story of infidelity as a married man makes his sinful way to “the body shop”.
Along with the two tracks that feature Jessie Reyez – the smoky neo-soul of ‘Perfect’ and the dancehall-inflected ‘Gimme’, which also features Jamaica’s Grammy-winning Koffee – they perhaps reflect the most significant sonic departures from Smith of old.
‘How To Cry’, the album’s acoustic midpoint, is the most basic track on the record with little by way of unique songwriting, never improving much beyond the opening line, “I don’t know when you’re sad / I can’t tell when you’re mad”.
Trash pop tune ‘Lose You’ represents a slight nod to Smith’s feature work (a la ‘Latch’), whilst ‘I’m Not Here To Make Friends’ sounds like a disco take on Justice vs. Simian’s 2006 track ‘We Are Your Friends’, with its inevitably clean-cut production work from Calvin Harris.
Album closer ‘Who We Love’. Meanwhile, a ballad alongside pop’s ubiquitous presence Ed Sheeran is another very clear ode to feeling liberated in one’s sexuality, adding obvious reinforcement to the message imposed at the album’s beginning.
But sentiment aside, as a rather tepid duet, it sums up the album as a whole. Whilst it’s undoubtedly positive to see Smith in a more outwardly happy place, away from the despair and heartbreak of previous records, that doesn’t always make it a thrilling or innovative listen.