Sam Smith, "Gloria" (Capitol)
Since the release of the soulful 2014 smash "Stay with Me," the British singer/songwriter has been pop's most high-profile balladeer of queer heartbreak, a crooner with a pure, buttery tone and an agile vocal range that can swoop from the depths of despair to an airy, yearning falsetto. Now, on the more upbeat and sensual fourth album, Smith, who uses they/them pronouns, is singing a less dour tune.
"Love Me More" is a bright, springy ode to self-acceptance, inspired by Smith's increasing vulnerability in talking about longtime struggles with body image. The song transcends the limitations of one-dimensional "empowerment pop" because it refreshingly suggests that self-love is an ongoing process.
The "Gloria" song that became Smith's first No. 1 hit in the United States is something else entirely: "Unholy," a campy, devilish romp that features Kim Petras. The appeal of "Unholy" comes from the way it wags a lusty finger at holier-than-thou puritanism and presents queerness as the basis of aesthetic liberation.
Much of "Gloria" aims for a similar sense of ecstatic catharsis and looks for it where Smith's career began: on the dance floor. The forlorn pianos and light percussion of Smith's signature ballads have largely been swapped out for synthesizers and electronic beats. The thumping neo-house "Lose You" harks back to Smith's early appearances on U.K. dance hits like Disclosure's "Latch" while the sleek, glittery "I'm Not Here to Make Friends" taps into the current pop-disco revival.
The quality varies across the 12-track album, which Smith wrote with longtime collaborator Jimmy Napes and others. The dancehall-influenced "Gimme" has the libidinousness of "Unholy" but little of its charm, centered around a gratingly repetitive hook from Jessie Reyez, who also appears on the similarly uninspired "Perfect." The album's finale, "Who We Love," is its gravest misstep, a schmaltzy duet with Ed Sheeran that plays it safe and blunts the force of Smith's previous idiosyncrasy.
"Gloria" has moments of boldness, but its occasional lapses into generics keep it from feeling like a major personal statement. Smith's voice, as ever, is effortlessly dazzling, but it can certainly handle more challenging material.
LINDSAY ZOLADZ, New York Times
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