Sam Smith – ‘Gloria’ Album Review

Photo Credit: Michael Bailey Gates

When Sam Smith first rose onto the music scene in 2013, they were marketed as yet another inoffensive, vocally impressive, soulful crooner – the sort that Britain has long excelled at generating. Smith, who then went by he/him pronouns, was seen as a sort of male equivalent to Adele – or, more accurately, a stop-gap filler for the four-to-five-year periods between Adele releases. Since then, Smith has become better known as a queer trailblazer – the world’s most high-profile non-binary star, whose every move seems to set off a right-wing fury. 

But the inherent contradiction of Smith’s music post coming out as non-binary in 2019 is that it reliably lacked the defiance, edge, and excitement of Smith’s videos, live performances, and interviews. The lead single, “Love Me More” for Smith’s fourth studio LP, Gloria, continues in this vein – a drab, self-help ballad that flails over the finish line thanks to a limp trap beat. Most of Smith’s newest album follows in this vein. The detailed verses of “How To Cry” hint at some real depth and captivating story-telling, but the chorus devolves into clichéd affirmations of vulnerability as a strength, with a fittingly uninventive rhyme scheme (“sad // …mad”, “cry // …lie”). The title track meanwhile rejects the Gospel choir that many balladeers utilize to uplift their tracks and instead uses a traditional English choir – who serves to slow the album’s already-slow pace yet further. It’s fitting that Gloria ends with a schmaltzy ballad with Ed Sheeran – a plea for tolerance so vague and so platitude-heavy that it ceases to have any real meaning. Reactionaries may plead for a return to “the old Sam Smith” – but they only need to look to Gloria’s deep cuts to see that they’re very much still there. 

But Gloria does occasionally gesture towards entirely new directions for Smith – specifically in the form of three songs, whose respective levels of success vary widely. The first, and most famous, of these, is “Unholy” – Smith’s unlikely hit with trans, cult-pop-sensation Kim Petras, which in many countries (including the U.K. and U.S.) marked the first No.1 by either a non-binary or trans performer. The 20-to-30 seconds of the song that first went viral is undeniably catchy and the song is exciting to the extent that in a pop landscape defined by nostalgia, it sounds quite unlike anything that’s come before it. But, the song is irritatingly overproduced and forces Smith’s voice into unnatural and unpleasant places – and if Petras’s verse was meant to be a masterclass in campness, it instead more closely resembles the much-mocked musical output of infamous Real Housewife Erika Jayne.

Next up is album nadir “Gimme” – a feature with Koffee and Jessie Reyez. It’s a cynical and half-hearted foray into dancehall, that fits an exhausting 121 repetitions of the titular word within 2 minutes and 50 seconds. It sounds as if Smith was assigned with creating a Top 10 hit and forgot until 15 minutes before the deadline and hastily created this hoping it would suffice (its absence on the Billboard Hot 100 suggests it didn’t). Smith’s critics may argue that “Unholy” represents the very worst of popular music (even though closer examination of its lyrics finds it to be a condemnation not an endorsement of “unholy” behavior), but the cynical, TikTok-bait of “Gimme” is actually Gloria’s most damning endorsement of modern musical trends. 

Smith’s third attempt at reinvention, arriving in the form of “I’m Not Here To Make Friends,” is a surprise slam dunk – a gloriously camp disco banger that sees Smith finally match the appeal of their public persona with the music they create. Accompanied by a controversial, thrillingly over-the-top, and unapologetically queer music video, it represents the first time that Smith has found a fully satisfying synthesis between the various elements of their artistry. The hope it provides, in terms of what it promises from future Smith releases, can almost make you overlook Gloria’s numerous disappointments and half-measures.

Written by: Tom Williams

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

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