“You like them crazy do you? I’m crazy through and through…” croons Sam Smith on their fourth album, Gloria. Smith seems too sweet to live up to the boast. You could safely take every song on this easygoing record home to meet the parents. Even on “I’m Not Here to Make Friends”, a track about searching for a lover in the darkness of a club, you can still imagine Smith at said club volunteering to be the designated driver for their mates.
This warmly conversational quality is nicely expressed on opener “Love Me More”, in which Smith asks listeners: “Have you ever felt like being somebody else?” They admit that the identity that “used to burn” now feels increasingly comfortable. Set to an affable, Nineties R&B beat, the song sees the mainstream pioneer of non-binary life holding out a companionable hand to anyone struggling to accept themselves.
Having soothed inner doubts, “No God” finds Smith turning out to address their critics. It’s a gentle engagement in the culture wars, on which the singer encourages their haters to “try and see it from the other side”. The pace and phrasing falls into a relaxed step with TLC’s classic “No Scrubs” as they sing “You’re no God, no teacher, no leader…”
Apparently the album name comes from Smith’s disco persona, presumably a nod to Gloria “I Will Survive” Gaynor. Smith’s vocals are, of course, beautiful. Creamy and curvaceous; liquid with emotion. But I often feel their voice is searching for tangier tunes to wrap that molten wax around. Without any sharpness to offset it, listening to the repeated wobbly rise of Smith’s lovely, dollopy notes can feel like the aural equivalent of watching a lava lamp. Wonderfully hypnotic, but offering little in the way of Gaynor-esque drama. It means ballads like the soupy “Six Shots” and syrupy Ed Sheeran collab “Who We Love” burble into the background.
Such gloopiness means that when – on “Unholy” – Smith sings of a cheating relative “getting hot at the body shop”, I don’t picture a raunchy encounter at the local garage. Instead, the song brings to mind a guy getting off on the latest high street range of dewberry-scented bathroom lotions. That being said, “Unholy” turns out to be Gloria’s stand-out banger. The track is driven by a throbbing synth and metallic clang of a pulse, while Smith winds their vocals around an Eastern-influenced melody like a chiffon scarf around a belly dancer’s waist. A string section spirals down the semitones a la Britney Spears’s “Toxic”. Meanwhile, German popstar Kim Petras adds a little spikiness with a bragger’s rap on which she demands a shopping list of designer labels from would-be suitors.
They keep up the pace on “Gimme” (ft Koffee). It’s a booty call track but Smith being Smith, the lyrics entail some awfully considerate advice that their lover “relax, walk before you run”. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the thoughtful singer had added: “It’s cold out, make sure you wrap up warm, and take a licensed taxi!” Koffee adds the punch, though, promising to push bodies to the limit.
There’s further fun to be had on “Perfect” (ft Jessie Reyez), in which Smith unconvincingly promises that aforementioned “craziness”. More credible, however, are their claims that they’ve learnt to “wear my flaws like jewellery”. The track crescendos with the kind of Eighties rock-guitar solo that can only have been produced by a very sweaty musician wearing a bandana and making a full-on sex gurn. Things end glowingly with the choral title track, a graceful, golden hymn to sex acceptance. To paraphrase Smith, then, this album is not perfect. But they’re working on it.