A fourth album features Kim Petras, Ed Sheeran, Jessie Reyez and Koffee, and showcases a voice that makes everything sound listenable. But of terrific moments there are too few
There’s a bit of a dichotomy with Sam Smith. On paper, they’re one of our most interesting pop stars – indeed, as the first major non-binary pop artist, they’re a part of modern pop culture and have arguably been responsible for bringing ‘the pronoun debate’ to the mainstream public – and scored the first James Bond theme to reach Number 1 on the UK charts, for the Oscar and Golden Globe winning Writing’s On The Wall.
And yet, Smith’s music remains frustratingly predictable. A bit like Coldplay, whose every album release is preceded by talk that THIS is the album where they go all weird, the pre-release talk around Gloria is that Smith’s fourth album would be experimental and push the musical boundaries. However like Coldplay, whose sole concession to being a bit maverick is to record a song without a “woaahh-woaahh” chorus, Gloria ends up sounding very much like a Sam Smith record.
Which isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. Smith has a voice that makes everything sound listenable – their voice can switch between baritone and tenor effortlessly, and they sound equally at home on Gloria with both the ballads and the more disco-orientated songs. However, it’s undeniably all a bit bland and tasteful – you get the impression that Smith really wants to relax and create some proper dance anthems, just as somebody like Olly Alexander is so good at, yet too much of Gloria sees Smith wallowing in the comfort zone.
Opening track Love Me More sets the tone for the album – a downbeat ballad preaching self-love above all other things. A laudable message for sure, and obviously one close to Smith’s heart (their struggles with mental health have been well documented) and it’s delivered with an intensity that makes this one of Smith’s best vocal performances in some time.
The trouble is that too much of the record stays in this territory. You yearn to hear more tracks like Unholy, a sleazily camp duet with German trans pop star Kim Petras that became the first song by a non-binary artist and a transgender woman to reach Number 1 in the USA. As well as its undoubted cultural impact, it’s also a lot of fun – talk of “Mummy don’t know daddy’s getting hot at the body shop, doing something unholy” (and it quite clearly isn’t checking out new types of shower gel).
It’s when it’s in this dirty disco mode that Gloria makes most sense – the undoubted dancefloor banger that is I’m Not Here To Make Friends is a definite highlight, and Lose You is reminiscent of George Michael‘s post-outing music like Outside. Yet too often the record is dragged back down by ballads like Perfect (in which a squealing guitar sounds incredibly out of place) or Lose You.
Closing with Who We Love, a duet with Ed Sheeran that sounds like the result of typing “what would a duet between Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran sound like” into an AI generator, Gloria can’t help but feel a bit underwhelming and monotone. When it catches fire, as on Unholy, it sounds terrific but those moments are too few. Next time around, adopting a motto of “more fun, less wallowing”, Smith’s extraordinary voice may receive the songs they can cut loose with.