Why Sam Smith’s Reinvention Matters

Sam Smith staged one of pop music’s most groundbreaking queer reinventions. The confident Gloria doesn’t quite live up to that.

Sam Smith, master of melancholic modulation, didn’t want to write a fourth heartbreak album. “When I was a kid, just walking out of the house, I needed armor,” they explain in the publicity material for their new record Gloria. “Rihanna, Robyn, Beyoncé, they were my armor. And I feel like Gloria is the album I needed that I never had.”

Even amid an efflorescence of savvy, openly queer pop stars, Smith’s musical transition has been thrilling to watch. They’ve metamorphosed out of their earlier cultural wallpaper era, when they sadly begged a lover to stay with them (in 2014’s “Stay With Me”) and declared themself “too good at goodbyes” (in 2017’s song of that title).

With 2020’s Love Goes, Smith let out anger and lust in uptempo bops like “How Do You Sleep?” and “Diamonds.” Their music videos featured sensual dancing, and Smith’s sparkly outfits and unapologetically femme stage presence kept triggering Gay Twitter backlashes. Last year’s “Unholy,” Gloria’s breakout single, only upped the ante. 

A preposterous slice of sexy-gothic camp, the song sounds like a plea from a nosy kid judging their immoral parents; Smith whine-purrs the massively TikToked chorus: “Mummy don't know daddy’s getting hot / At the body shop / Doin’ something unholy.” They archly channel a pearl-clutching narrator judging a “dirty boy who can’t keep his business clean.” Kim Petras, who features on the song, plays her sugar baby role to perfection: “He always calls me ’cause I never cause the drama,” she belts in an interlude. 

Their recent performances have generated discourse and body-shaming backlash: Think back to last year’s sequined onesie at their Jingle Ball promotion or, more recently, the dramatically oversize fluffy coat-dress that (spoiler alert) concealed Petras underneath in last week’s SNL performance.

Still, the single shot to No. 1 last year — both in the US and the UK — and they broke ground as the first openly trans artists to reach the top of the charts

The rest of Gloria doesn’t quite live up to that song’s zany originality. The album showcases Smith’s musical range; they tackle everything from ’90s Europop to neo-soul and attempt to expand their songwriting to include themes of sex, self-empowerment, and even a tinge of politics. But the songs are uneven, sometimes marred by clichéd metaphors or sentiments. Still, among the missteps lies some of Smith’s strongest writing ever.

Gloria opens with “Love Myself,” a neo-soul midtempo track where Smith sings about not liking what they see in the mirror, but finding it less painful to deal with society’s reflection. “I’d blame the sky,” they sing, “when the mess was in my mind.” Though it’s not the most striking first impression, the song sets the album’s queer spiritual theme and mood.

Smith purposely surrounded themself with more women collaborators on this album — including Petras and Colombian Canadian Jessie Reyez — to bring out their femme sensuality. “Unholy” is the most memorable of these tracks. On “Gimme,” a skittering collaboration with Reyez and Jamaican singer Koffee, they sing about feeling “drunk on love” and being watched by voyeurs. But it comes off less as playfully sexy and more a dutiful attempt to perform eroticism. 

In contrast, Smith has always found a synergistic backdrop in dance music. In fact, 2019’s “Dancing With a Stranger,” a collaboration with Normani, is what sparked their nonbinary self-understanding. “Lose You” is this album’s standout dance bop. Inspired by a lesbian friend’s breakup, the song starts with Smith watching a lover pack their bags, amid a pumping ’90s Euro sound. As they plead “I’m not ready to lose you,” they actually sound more desperately lusty — or hungry — than in the songs ostensibly about sex. 

The album’s other bid for dancefloor domination, “Not Here to Make Friends,” is comparatively underwhelming. The neo-disco sound has by now been exploited by everyone from Justin Timberlake to Bruno Mars, and its played-out associations make the track stale. Smith declares: “Thirty almost got me and I’m so over love songs,” but the overall vibe isn’t exactly euphoric — in part because the chorus, which leans on the titular reality TV catchphrase, feels stilted and doesn’t memorably rework the meme in any way.

But there are significant signs of growth too. Some of the album’s most lyrically ambitious songs grapple with toxic masculinity in a way that Smith hasn’t written about before. In “Not God,” they adopt an accusatory tone addressing an entitled authoritarian ex-partner who likes to hear themself speak. “You’re no god, no leader,” they sing defiantly. 

“How to Cry,” a meditation on a tumultuous relationship, builds on Smith’s sad-lover catalog. Accompanied by spare guitar strings, Smith sings about covering for a lying, angry ex-partner, building up to an affecting chorus: “Nobody taught you how to cry / But somebody showed you how to lie.” It’s arguably the strongest ballad Smith has ever recorded. 

The album closes, though, with “Who We Love,” an Ed Sheeran collaboration that sounds like an AI version of an Ed Sheeran ballad. With well-trodden sentiments like “Let go / You don’t know / Better than your heart knows,” it doesn’t quite stick in one’s mind. 

The penultimate song, “Gloria,” would have worked as a less obvious, more confident closing statement. It’s like a reverse side of “Unholy.” If the latter is Smith’s performance of sexy kitsch grime, “Gloria” is the onetime Catholic kid’s earnest spectacle of queer joy. 

It’s actually not so much a song as a vibe — it’s less than two minutes long — featuring Smith singing ethereally about demons on their shoulder and monsters in their head. They performed the song on SNL last week, backed by a choir and featuring a glammed-up and strikingly beautiful Sharon Stone giving face and posing on a chaise lounge. (The scene gave such random club energy that one tweet invoked SNL’s queer club trend reporter Stefon to describe it.)

Smith called the song their “queer love hymn,” honoring an ineffable spirit. “I don't know if it's nature or a feminine energy inside me that I'm setting free," they said in promotional materials. That description captures the spirit of this album, which, after the striking breakthrough of Love Goes, feels more like a work of stretched boundaries in which Smith hasn’t quite caught up to themself. Still, it’s fun to watch them grow. ●

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