In “Young,” the opening song of Love Goes, Sam Smith’s new album, the artist sings about feeling overly scrutinized from an early age. “They're watching me, judging me, making me feel so used.” Then the sentiment turns remarkably, specifically queer. “Can't you see that all I wanna do / Is get a little wild, get a little high / Kiss a hundred boys and not feel like I'm tied to them.”
Smith has told interviewers that this new record is their first “proper heartbreak album.” That might seem like a surprising statement from someone who made their name, and accrued a mass pop audience, by singing universally beloved heartbreak ballads. Smith’s melancholically modulating voice became a distinctive force in pop music thanks to massive hits like 20014’s “Stay With Me” and 2017’s “Too Good at Goodbyes.”
But there was, in retrospect, a lack of specificity to the pining love lyrics, and even a diffuse quality to Smith’s image, which was always in the background of Their Voice. Their first childhood icon was Frank Sinatra, and Smith became a star in a throwback, Sinatra-ish style, complete with ’50s pompadour, that made them confusingly interchangeable with Michael Bublé.
Then they came out as gay in 2014 and explained that some of the sadness in their music was about their unrequited love for men. At the time, they were still going by “he”/“him” pronouns, and in a cover profile, Rolling Stone described them “as the lonely boy inside the big voice.” (A big New York Times profile similarly played up the sensitivity.)
In September of last year, Smith came out as nonbinary and genderqueer on Instagram, explaining that they now use “they”/“them” pronouns. “I hope you can see me like I see myself now,” they wrote. “For now I just want to be VISIBLE and open.” They have since experienced requited love and the pain of its dissolution in their personal life. And the Love Goes era is a snapshot of the new, freer Smith as a person and pop star.
Since the start of the rollout for the album earlier this year, dance became a new terrain for Smith, both as lyrical theme and as part of their pop stardom. “Dancing With a Stranger,” the hit single collaboration with Normani from early 2019, an EDM bop about being led into anonymous arms after a breakup, announced a new, less ballad-driven era.
Still, the back-and-forth with Normani gave the whole enterprise a bit of a cis-hetero cover. It was the follow-up hit “How Do You Sleep?” from this summer that really introduced the new, uninhibited pop star. “I’m done crying myself away,” Smith sings in the Max Martin collaboration. They are cast as the desiring subject in thrall to a lying lover whose moves make them want to stay. And in the accompanying video, Smith gazes at the camera lustily and vogues in unapologetically femme style, swaying their hips.
That sense of the singer as subject and object not just of unrequited love, but desire, carries into the rest of Love Goes. “I remember every taste if I get a little wasted,” goes a line in "Dance ('Til You Love Someone Else)" a song about hitting the dance floor to get over heartbreak, “Someone get me over it,” they demand, almost robotically, before their voice distorts into EDM drops.
Love Goes was originally titled To Die For and slated for release before the COVID-19 pandemic threw the world into disarray. Based on the differences between the two title ballads, it’s clear how much Smith grew in confidence as a songwriter and pop persona just in the months from the original album to the new iteration.
“To Die For” is old-school Smith, the broad pop songwriter observing “couples on a runway” looking like they’re posing for a picture while they yearn for the kind of love to die for. “Love Goes,” the new title track, which appears toward the middle of the album, is, in contrast, the mature statement of someone who has loved and lost and is fed up with pining for the wrong people. “You’re broken, I know this / and if you knew it too, you’d love me a whole different way,” they sing.
It’s not just the lyrics but the sonic architecture accompanying them that have become richer. “Love Goes,” for instance, is almost lullaby-ish at first, then explodes into symphonic trumpets before concluding with downcast strings. “Diamonds,” the latest single, a tortured kiss-off bop about materialism follows album opener “Young,” is one of their strongest dance pop songs to date, in part thanks to the opening synth horns that really drive the song’s desperation. “Show me how little you care,” they sing, almost begging for badness from a lover who moves “in dark ways.”
Love Goes still includes the more acoustic ballads featuring Smith in melancholy mode. Even in those piano-driven songs, the lyrics and images are more evocative, carried by deeper perspective. In the melancholy “Kids Again,” Smith yearns not to know a past partner so deeply to make the pain less intense, evoking a time when feelings could be simpler. In the standout “Forgive Myself,” they sing about letting go of an old love, because “I can’t love anyone else till I forgive myself.” In contrast, in “So Serious,” they’re almost poking fun at themselves and how intensely they take their feelings.
Smith also remains skilled at conveying nonclichéd pop drama about being spurned or helplessly in thrall to their feelings. In the lovely “My Oasis,” they sing, “There’s nothing I can do when it comes to you.” That theme of desiring helplessness also carries the finger-snapping simplicity of “Breaking Hearts” about a lover who goes coy and cold.
Pop music is still, in some ways, the last gasp of straight, white monoculture. It’s not an accident that Smith stuck to a butch image at the start of their career, and refused gender-specific pronouns, in order to appeal to the largest audience.
They recently admitted that they felt “a deep and heavy pressure” early in their career about disappointing “my fans, my record label, my family. But most importantly myself.” As their career progressed “each day went on, my suits felt more like straitjackets and my head started to feel more and more like a prison.”
Smith mentioned how inspired they were by fellow queer pop star Troye Sivan’s femme dancing in his videos, like “My, My, My.” “He’s moving in that video like every single gay boy,” Smith told the Times in 2018. “I identify with that video so much.” Sivan clearly influenced their own, new video moves.
Through their Instagram over the past year, Smith also started coming out of their shell. They posted shirtless pictures that were in some ways outside the very narrow confines of white Instagay culture, with a softer torso and more feminine postures. It was also through Instagram that Smith started sharing their explorations of gender. In one February post about the poetry chapbook of the gender-nonconforming performance artist Alok Vaid-Menon, Femme in Public, they write, “Through your words I am finding out so much about myself and feeling a little less lost than I did yesterday.” Vaid-Menon is in the video for the song “I’m Ready,” a duet with Demi Lovato that isn’t one of the album standouts, but hints at the way Smith has been incorporating more of their personal life into their music.
Love Goes, as a pop statement by a nonbinary artist, is an unprecedented slap against the deep cis-normativity of pop music. The queerness of Smith’s perspective — their lyrics and image — will to some degree confuse fans of the earlier Smith. So far, the album started out second on iTunes behind Ariana Grande, who can draw on deeper wells of relatability when she sings about her famous breakups. The record since fell out of the top 10.
But Smith understands the risk they’re taking. The album’s penultimate song, before the Calvin Harris collabo and pop hit “Promises,” is the quieter “Fire on Fire.” They sing, “My mother said I'm too romantic / She said, ‘You're dancing in the movies’ / I almost started to believe her.” That image of the disapproving parent gazing at the overly imaginative queer child haunts the album. But Smith adds, defiantly, “Don't let them ruin our beautiful rhythms.” It sounds like they’ll keep dancing to their own tune.●