‘Gloria’ by Sam Smith: Album Review4 min read
With an unusually powerful voice and a debut album that garnered four Grammys, Sam Smith could easily have stayed in the same lane their entire career — singing beautifully about heartbreak and longing in a smooth, sometimes snarky pop-R&B vein with a dazzling array of vocal pyrotechnics. But after three albums, so much heartbreak and moping starts to feel like a third dinner with your recently-big-breakup friend.
The Smiths’ fourth album, “Gloria,” isn’t that at all — it’s a wild, sprawling night laced with adventure and some danger, but still gets you home safely. More than a new chapter for the Smiths, it’s a musical rebirth that completely redefines them as an artist — there are smooth and commercial songs alongside ballads and slow jams and dancefloor anthems, and most of all, an adventure that was only hinted at before. It is full of surprises.
But through it all, the Smiths became a much more assured singer, their voice and phrasing taking on a finesse that could be traced back to Gladys Knight and Anita Baker to Mary J. Classic R&B inspired singers as far back as Blige, but George Michael’s mid-period work did even more. , Sade and Prince. There’s plenty of powerhouse that fans crave, but it’s used strategically and sparingly, with more focus on fitting the mood and lyrics than breaking the glass. The heartache is still there, but there’s less insecurity and more I’ll-be-surviving, as the lyrics come from someone more comfortable in their own skin.
The album begins deceptively with “Love Me More,” a gospel-influenced self-care song that layers its dark lyrics (“Every day I try not to hate myself”) over a heartfelt, sing-song melody that feels more fitting. To a John Legend or John Batiste (or, really, a TV ad). But from there the album kicks into gear with three R&B-tinged songs ranging from the sultry “Perfect” to the low-key disco of “Lose You” to a duet with Canadian-Colombian singer Jesse Reyes that sums up album one. Theme: “I’m not perfect, but I’m worth it/ I’m not perfect, but I’m working on it.”
The simple grooves of these three songs come to a lurching halt when “Unholy” — Smith’s swaggering smash duet with Kim Petrus released last fall — opens the door. A pulsating pop-dance track about a family man’s adventures in unsafe sex, it features a schooling rhythm and harsh, growling chorus that sounds like a cross between an Arabic tune and an ocean song. It’s the most sexually loaded song to top the Billboard Hot 100 since “WAP,” but more interestingly, it’s also one of the most musically innovative and unusual songs to do the same in years.
How do you follow that? Including a gentle acoustic ballad called “How to Cry” of course. The album’s sequence moves deftly, ebbing and flowing in mood and sound, descending with the post-coital slow jam “Six Shots,” rising again with the pinging electro single “Gimme,” and climaxing with an irresistible disco jam that’s well on its way. can do Smith’s next No. 1 and this summer’s song, “I’m Not Here to Make Friends.” A collaboration with Rage and DJ titan Calvin Harris, it’s embellished with a slick groove, twinkling strings and a catchy title that will inspire countless don’t-f-with-me finger-pointings on the dancefloor, but the real payoff comes in the response: “I’m here for friendship.” I’m not here to/I need a boyfriend.” (And we can respectfully suggest that a remix featuring Dua Lipa would be stunning.)
Naturally, that energy peak is followed up with something very different: the hymn-like, vocals-only title track, which was recorded with a full choir in the medieval church Smith attended as a child (and which they performed on “Saturday Night Live” last year). (with a surprise appearance from actor Sharon Stone over the weekend). The song features only the choir for the first minute, until Smith’s vocals float in, conjuring images of angels on a church roof; Although they describe it as “my weird music”, the lyrics are fairly elliptical and again musically contrasting – demons and demons in the first stanza, empowerment in the second. But the spiritual content of a song called “Gloria” sung by a medieval-sounding church choir couldn’t be clearer.
It feels like a finale, but it’s not: the album closes with “We Love Who We Love,” a gentle, shoulder-to-shoulder duet with Ed Sheeran that leaves listeners, no doubt intentionally, with the words, “So leave/ You don’t know better than your heart knows/ We love who we love.
For such a musically far-reaching album, it’s surprising that Smith and longtime musical collaborator Jimmy Knaps worked mostly with just two groups: longtime multiplatinum Norwegian duo Stargate (Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, Rihanna) and Ilya, Circuit, Blake Slatkin, and Omar Fedi. (Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj, The Weeknd, Lil Nas X, Justin Bieber among them), though “We Love We Love We Love” features longtime Sheeran collaborator Johnny Mac.
Their contributions cannot be understated, but there is no question that this is Smith’s story. “It feels like an emotional, sexual and spiritual release,” they said of the album when it was announced last fall. “In a weird way, it feels like my first record. And it feels like a coming of age.” With R&B and pop and disco and chorales both sacred and profane, “Gloria” is all that and more.