Sam Smith has never held back when it comes to expressing his feelings.
From the groundbreaking ballads “Stay with Me” and “Not the Only One” from 2014 to the heartbroken songs on Smith’s final album, 2020’s “Love Goes,” there is a common theme of longing, disillusionment, and a fair amount of self-loathing.
Smith, 30, is finished mopping on their fourth studio album, “Gloria,” which is released Friday. The vulnerable part of her psyche is still there, but Smith is prepared to face her inner demons, satisfy her needs—both sexual and otherwise—and advance along the road to self-acceptance.
The album’s 13 tracks are broken up into two interludes: “Hurting Interlude,” a news anchor’s account of the first Pride celebration in New York in the 1970s, and “Dorothy’s Interlude,” which features passages from Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow” and a speech by trans activist Sylvia Rivera at a gay liberation rally in 1973.
Smith, whose pronouns are they/them/they’re, came out as non-binary in 2019 and has spoken about the hurtful criticism they received from those who don’t get the struggle with gender identity.
However, on “Gloria,” which bears the name of the album’s predominately feminine inspiration, Smith is both musically and lyrically more daring and bracingly frank. The majority of the songs feature strings and disco swells, but Smith also dabbles in the dancehall (“Gimme,” featuring new collaborators Koffee and Jessie Reyez) and the majestic sound of the choir from their home church in Saffron Walden, England (“Gloria”).
‘Love Me More
Smith’s constant struggle with arrogance is best captured in the album’s first track. The new Smith, though, brushes off the insults and verbal jabs while the previous Smith may have allowed them to destroy their emotional fortitude. They reach a significant conclusion while finger-snapping to a straightforward beat: “Maybe I am learning how to love me more.”
In a statement released to coincide with the album’s release, Smith describes this as their “Kylie (Minogue) meets George Michael meets Abba moment,” and in fact, the fusion of glittering electro-pop and a soaring chorus injects the kind of dance-floor joy championed by Smith’s forefathers. Smith is open about their wretched need for a partner who is packing their bags and leaving, bemoaning how much they would miss the “spiritual quiet” and comfort (“When I’m with you, it’s like nothing can go wrong”). However, it appears that Smith can move forward this time without casting one last glimmer of hope over their shoulder.
One of the year’s most enduring tracks was Smith’s collaboration with fellow nonbinary vocalist Kim Petras, which not only had massive chart success on the Billboard Hot 100. Smith is almost gleefully calling out a guy who leaves his family to partake in extracurricular activities (“Mummy don’t know Daddy’s getting hot, in the body shop”) in a manner that is alternately slinky and campy with more than a veneer of salaciousness.
‘How to Cry’
The strummed acoustic guitars that lay the groundwork for this melancholy ballad have a flavor of Oasis’ “Wonderwall.” Smith’s voice is soft and sincere regret may be heard in it after repeated fruitless attempts to maintain a relationship. But Smith sings with resolve rather than dejection as they sharply reprimand an ex who never learned to communicate vulnerability and come to the conclusion that it’s time to let go (“I know I got nothing left”).
‘I’m Not Here to Make Friends
This disco-fueled thumper has a strong spiritual connection to Studio 54 in 1978 and even carries over some of the sassy intentions that were common at the club during its heyday. Smith makes it plain what they want: “I need a partner when the lights come on.” Smith is “so beyond love songs.” The song, which was produced by Calvin Harris in his customary impeccable manner, is sure to become a fan favorite thanks to its shout-sung chorus and unrelenting tempo.
‘Who We Love’
To create and perform this lovely duet that closes “Gloria,” Smith teamed up with his friend Ed Sheeran. The couple’s declarations of romantic freedom to “love who we love” is punctuated by soft strings and a lovely delivery. Sometimes, the cosmos has drawn us closer, and you can never lose if love is what you feel, Smith and Sheeran remind us.