Sam Smith has never been reticent about sharing emotions.
The through line – from 2014’s breakthrough ballads “Stay with Me” and “Not the Only One” to the heartsick songs on Smith’s last album, 2020’s “Love Goes” – is one of longing, disappointment and more than a bit of self-loathing.
But on their fourth studio album, “Gloria,” out Friday, Smith, 30, is done wallowing. The soulful vulnerability is still there, but Smith is ready to conquer emotional demons, fulfill needs sexual and otherwise and progress on the pathway to self-acceptance.
Tucked among the 13 tracks are two breaks: “Hurting Interlude,” an excerpt of a news anchor covering the first Pride celebration in New York in the 1970s, and “Dorothy’s Interlude,” which includes snippets from Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow” and a 1973 speech from trans activist Sylvia Rivera at a gay liberation rally.
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Smith, whose pronouns are they/them/their, came out as non-binary in 2019, and has spoken about the painful backlash they endured from those who don’t understand the struggle with gender identity.
But on “Gloria” – named for the heavy female influence on the album – Smith is bracingly forthright in their lyrics as well as more musically adventurous. Strings and disco swells permeate most of the songs, but Smith also zags with dancehall (“Gimme,” featuring new collaborators Koffee and Jessie Reyez) and the aural majesty of the choir from their childhood church in Saffron Walden, England (“Gloria”).
Some highlights of Smith’s next chapter:
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‘Love Me More’
The opening track encapsulates Smith’s ongoing battle with self-regard. But while the old Smith might have allowed the insults and verbal daggers to obliterate their emotional constitution, this Smith shrugs it off. Over a simple, finger-snapping beat, they come to an important conclusion: “Maybe I am learning how to love me more.”
In a statement accompanying the album’s release, Smith calls this their “Kylie (Minogue) meets George Michael meets Abba moment” and indeed, the combination of glistening electro-pop and a towering chorus inject the kind of dance-floor bliss championed by Smith’s forebears. Smith is honest about their desperate longing directed at a lover who is packing bags and walking out the door, lamenting how much they’ll miss the “spiritual calm” and comfort (“When I’m with you, it’s like nothing can go wrong”). But this time, it feels as if Smith can forge ahead without glancing back over their shoulder with one more hopeful look.
Smith’s pairing with fellow nonbinary singer Kim Petras not only achieved mega chart success on the Billboard Hot 100 last year, but was one of the year’s most memorable singles. Alternately slinky and campy, with more than a veneer of salaciousness, Smith is practically gleeful calling out a dude leaving his family to participate in extracurricular activities (“Mummy don’t know Daddy’s getting hot, at the body shop”).
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‘How to Cry’
There’s an essence of Oasis’ “Wonderwall” in the strummed acoustic guitars that form the foundation of this wistful ballad. Smith’s voice is hushed and filled with genuine regret after several exhausting attempts to make a relationship work. But, as they pointedly chastise an ex who never learned to express vulnerability and conclude that it’s time to let go (“I know I got nothing left”), Smith sings with determination rather than resignation.
‘I’m Not Here to Make Friends’
This disco-tastic thumper resides spiritually in Studio 54, circa 1978, and even retains the spicy intentions prevalent at the club in its heyday. Smith is “so over love songs” and makes their goal clear: “I need a partner when the lights come on.” Produced by Calvin Harris in his usual pristine style, the song, with its shout-sung chorus and relentless beat, is bound to be a mirrorball favorite.
‘Who We Love’
Smith paired with pal Ed Sheeran to write and sing this sweet duet that closes “Gloria.” Gentle strings and a dreamy delivery punctuate the pair’s proclamations of romantic freedom to “love who we love.” Sometimes, Smith and Sheeran remind, the “universe has pulled us closer” and “you can never lose if love is what you feel.”
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