A mainstream artist making noises about their forthcoming release being “the album I always wanted to make” is the kind of thing that makes record companies nervous. It comes with the implicit suggestion that the music that made them famous wasn’t quite the ticket, and the sense that the fans who loved said music might be in for a shock. But when that artist is Sam Smith – who has said just that about their fourth album, Gloria, bolstered by a press release talking up the album’s “edgy, experimental” nature – it’s worth remembering that we’ve been here before. Smith couched Gloria’s predecessor in similar terms: their third album Love Goes was supposedly “experimental”, and “allowed me to be whoever I wanted to be in the studio that day” etc. As it turned out, it was about as experimental as a packet of digestive biscuits, unless said experiment involved amping up the singer’s trademark romantic misery even further than before. The sense that Smith might not be the best judge of their own work, at least when it comes to its ability to spring surprises, thus took shape.
Still, the chart-topping collaboration with Kim Petras that preceded Gloria’s release represented a departure for Smith and a historical milestone for Petras – Unholy was the first time a trans or non-binary artist had topped the Billboard Hot 100 – even if its sound wasn’t particularly novel; you can detect trap, the gothic atmospherics of Billie Eilish circa 2019 and Sophie’s hyperpop production style in its DNA. The story of a straight married father secretly “getting hot” at a gay club called the Body Shop, it featured a dramatic choral hook and a stark electronic sound – as did its minimal, dancehall-influenced follow-up Gimme.
They’re sonic outliers on Gloria, given that there’s plenty of stuff here that could have easily slotted on to Smith’s previous three albums: the ballads How to Cry and Perfect; the concluding collaboration with Ed Sheeran, Who We Love, which sounds exactly like you’d expect. Nevertheless, you can detect a shift away from the piano-led sound with which Smith made their name: there’s a hint of the 80s R&B slow jam about No God and Six Shots. Similarly, while Smith is still wont to depict themselves as the helpless victim of romantic disaster – “how did you give up on us like that?” they cry on Lose You – the lyrics occasionally take a more upbeat turn: there are self-affirmations on Love Me More, as well as a sprinkling of songs in which sex is depicted as enjoyable, rather than merely the prelude to months of tearful misery.
So things have changed, at least a little, but there’s still something underwhelming about Gloria: the feeling that it’s more of the same is more prevalent than it should be. Part of the issue is Smith’s voice, which is powerful – incredibly so when close-miked on How to Cry – but doesn’t match their four-octave range with a similar breadth of emotion: they always sounds as if they’re pleading or telling you something terribly upsetting.
This occasionally works in the songs’ favour. Unholy’s lyrics depict the closeted dad in terms that are either gloating or salacious – “dirty, dirty boy” – but Smith’s delivery at least implies anguish lurking beneath the protagonist’s double life. Gloria’s best song might be the disco-fied I’m Not Here to Make Friends, about finding a one-night stand on the dancefloor, in the grand tradition of Inner Life’s I’m Caught Up (In a One Night Love Affair) or Phreek’s Weekend. In those 70s classics, there’s a suggestion of unhappiness that a quick leg-over won’t solve: if I’m Not Here to Make Friends does something similar, it’s down to Smith’s vocal, rather than the words. But elsewhere, their voice proves a problem. If you sing about loving yourself or flirtation in the same disconsolate tone that you sing about being abandoned by your recent ex-partner, it’s not only not going to ring true, it’s going to have a levelling effect, making the material seem less varied.
Part of the issue is the arrangements, which constantly file down any edges and coat every idea in tasteful pastel shades. Lose You plonks its house rhythm squarely in the middle of the road, a missed opportunity. The opening of Gimme is ear-catchingly odd – just beats and the scrape of an off-key violin – but it’s swiftly smoothed out with soft-focus electronics and backing vocals. Even the squealing hard rock guitar solo on Perfect feels oddly muted. Too often, you end up with music redolent not of the Body Shop as in the mythical gay bacchanal of Unholy, but the actual Body Shop, the store: you can imagine it pattering unobtrusively in the background while you peruse tea tree oil facial scrub.
It’s doubtless going to be huge: Smith’s audience lurks in the sweet spot where the Radio 1 playlist meets that of Radio 2, not a listenership given to rejecting music because it’s insufficiently artistically bold. But there’s something frustrating about its fractional shifts. You wish you got a bit more of the Sam Smith who was recently photographed for a magazine wearing goth-y platform boots, sock suspenders, tight blue satin shorts and an Abba T-shirt. They looked as if they didn’t care what anyone thought. It’s hard not to long for music with that attitude.
This week Alexis listened to
The Captain Francisco – The Rapture
A deeply odd but addictive cocktail: a hypnotic, mantra-like but poppy female soul vocal, with some of the Flaming Lips’ psychedelic euphoria in the mix.