Sam Smith Sounds More Alive Than Ever On The Genre-Spanning ‘Gloria’

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The artwork for Gloria, Sam Smith’s fourth studio album, recalls elements from their past album covers; the green hues of Love Goes provide a backdrop for the visage-centric photography that constituted the covers for In the Lonely Hour and The Thrill of It All. The cover for Gloria finds Smith staring directly into the camera for the very first time. Glimmers of a smirk color the expression of contentment and peace on the four-time Grammy winner’s face. They are finally ready to address their audience as their most full and honest self, just as the genre-spanning music of the record indicates.

Led by the transitional “Love Me More” and the historic No. 1 single “Unholy,” Gloria is Sam Smith’s self-described “coming-of-age” album. Although we can’t put much stock in how pop stars describe their new records, after all they have a product to sell and tour seats to fill, Smith’s characterization of their latest album could not be more apt. Like any good piece of coming-of-age art, Gloria is equal parts reflective and forward-thinking. The lovelorn balladry that lifted them to international superstardom remains intact, but they also punctuate the album’s more somber moments with pulsating post-disco synths and forays into country-pop, dancehall-inflected rhythms, and hyperpop flirtations. To track the evolution of their own understanding of their queerness, Smith looks to pop divas and queer icons of the past and present. From samples of RuPaul and Judy Garland’s version of “Over The Rainbow” to soundbites from Sylvia Rivera and Lilli Vincenz, Gloria’s narrative thread is punctuated by pillars queer popular culture and a rich history of LGBTQIA+ activism.

While the imagery of their recent stage shows has leaned more into the Boy George school of pop, the influence of George Michael grounds the delightfully campy disco chants of “I’m Not Here To Make Friends” — a song where Smith unabashedly proclaims exactly what they want out of a given relationship. The Sam Smith of Gloria is no longer yearning for a casual lover to stay the night, they’re now reveling in the freedom of sexual exploration outside of the confines of society’s gender and body expectations.

Sex informs a large part of Gloria. For an artist who has so often leaned on tropes of unrequited love, it’s refreshing to hear Smith get physical and direct. “Gimme,” which features contributions from Jessie Reyez and Koffee, may suffer from a derivative trop-pop beat, but its sensual cooing hook prevents the song from falling in on itself. “Six Shots” is a much stronger stab at a sex jam simply because it is more nuanced than “Gimme.” Smith elevates a dreadfully overdone whiskey metaphor into the stormy reality of loving someone who is still working through their own insecurities. Of course, there’s the Kim Petras-assisted “Unholy,” which turns up the dial to a sort of self-aware maximalist transgression that marks pop music at its most ridiculous and freeing.

Religion, the other grounding theme of Gloria, works in tandem with, not in opposition to, sex. A Catholic school alum, the Euro-Christian musical cues of Smith’s formative years are subverted throughout Gloria. “No God,” with its intricate harmonies that nod to Full Moon-era Brandy, is a slick takedown of destructive god complexes. Melodically, the song is reminiscent of “HIM,” a standout from Smith’s sophomore album, and that musical throughline is bolstered by the track’s histrionic live strings and pristine vocal performance. “HIM” tracked a conversation between Smith and God, while “No God” transitions that conversation to one between Smith and those who fancy themselves as God. “Gloria,” the album’s title track and most memorable interlude, features some of Smith’s strongest songwriting to date. They riff and run across a haunting choir that sings, “Demons on my shoulder / Monsters in my head / Shadow in the water / Will you be my friend?” Named after Smith’s “fighter voice,” the song is a moment of resilient catharsis in an album that often struggles to commit to its more left-field bouts of experimentation. Sam Smith’s spell-binding voice has been the anchor of their career, and, on Gloria, their routinely despondent tone finds a space to transform into a defiant tone, if only for a single song.

For all of the bold sonic leaps Smith takes on Gloria, they regress when they fall into pockets of the more drab tracks in their discography. “How to Cry” offers a sharp contrast to the bombast of “Unholy,” but maudlin lyrics and a forgettable melody prevent the song from standing out amongst the scores of ballads that Smith has already gifted us. Similarly, “Who We Love,” the Ed Sheeran duet that closes the album, is a drowsy ”love is love” track that’s almost corporate in how predictable and stale it feels. Nonetheless, the downcast Robyn-esque dance-pop of “Lose You” and “Perfect,” which pulls from both trap-pop and Rated R-era Rihanna, make for high points that keep the album from sinking under the weight of its weaker tracks.

Gloria is not Smith’s most consistent album, but it is unquestionably the album on which they sound the most alive. At once, an admirable step forward and a hodgepodge of somewhat half-hearted cross-genre experimentations, Gloria is Sam Smith’s most singular body of work to date.