In the age of Spotify, it’s not too often that you’re force-fed music you don’t want to hear. Even so, I have vivid memories of trying and failing to avoid Sam Smith and Kim Petras’ chart-topping collaboration “Unholy” last October when it was all over my Instagram feed.
It was specifically during the weekend of BravoCon, when every Real Housewife and Bravolebrity (aka about 40 percent of who I follow) was posting Reels of themselves posing in a photo booth, with “Unholy” playing over it. Whenever the song started blaring from the app, I immediately scrolled down. Everything about it was a little too intense and, conversely, unserious. The opening line, “Mummy don’t know daddy’s getting hot,” felt unbearably cheesy to me. And I hated how Smith’s vocals sounded against that spooky choir. Suffice to say, it was the first time in a while I thought I vehemently disliked a song as opposed to just feeling unimpressed.
Emphasis on “thought.”
On Smith’s fourth studio album, Gloria, released on Friday, “Unholy” comes at a point in the tracklist when you’re waiting for something a bit more decadent. The album certainly isn’t boring; the first half offers some solid, emotional tunes, but they don’t strike the tone you would expect after hearing “Unholy” for months on end. So when track five, “Perfect,” featuring Jessie Reyez, culminates in a suite of strings before boldly transitioning into “Unholy,” I experienced a jolt of excitement I never anticipated. The intensity of the track finally made sense in my ears. It no longer felt like a Saturday Night Live parody or a novelty song.
This sensation speaks to the near-perfect placement of each track and interlude on Gloria. The album’s curation is as polished as its production, led by Smith’s frequent collaborator Jimmy Napes. Unfortunately, this is both a blessing and a curse; the album’s 33-minute runtime is too damn short, breezing by in a way that feels so ephemeral, it risks being unmemorable.
To Smith’s credit, Gloria takes listeners on a journey with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Still, the album, which constantly alludes to an era of freedom and metamorphosis, doesn’t reach any extraordinary crescendo. For a project ostensibly about “emotional, sexual and spiritual liberation,” as Smith has put it, Gloria feels oddly restrained and conservative.
Gloria opens with “Love Me More,” an update on Smith’s feelings about their body image and self-esteem. Initially, the song sounds like one of Lizzo or Meghan Trainor’s body-positive, #yasqueen anthems. But there’s less certainty and confidence at play here; Smith admits they’re still struggling, singing over an organ, “Every day I’m tryin’ not to hate myself / But lately, it’s not hurting like it did before.” It’s refreshingly honest, but the song still isn’t raw enough to push the needle.
Queerness and acceptance are indeed the big themes on these songs, and thankfully, Smith refrains from exploring them in too trite a manner. The 30-year-old musician is living in the moment and collecting mistakes rather than showing off a new-and-improved version of themselves. In that way, R&B-leaning tracks like “Perfect” and “Six Shots” revel in the joys of imperfection and the thrill of romantic messiness. In other places, like the Koffee-assisted dancehall tune “Gimme,” Smith is enthusiastically horny, demanding sexual attention.
“I’m Not Here To Make Friends,” a collaboration with Calvin Harris and Jessie Reyez (the latter of whom inexplicably appears three times on the album), is a standout dance track that begins with RuPaul’s famous “if you can’t love yourself…” soundbite. That kind of lyrical quirk would usually invite mockery (and maybe it has in places on the internet I haven’t seen), but the song instantly rejects the drag queen’s self-loving message in a rather funny way, as Smith announces his desperate plea for romance over a bouncy disco beat.
Unfortunately, that’s the last bit of fun Smith has before the album fizzles out. Title track “Gloria” is a straight-up operatic hymn and not just a loose interpretation on the Latin word for “glory.” On Twitter last November, Smith described Gloria as a “spirit” and a “feeling” and sings directly to it in the song. However, the idea behind it and Smith’s commitment to liturgical music doesn’t really justify its existence on the album, making it feel entirely out of place.
Then there’s the closing track, “Who We Love,” which has the same schmaltzy vibe as Dua Lipa’s feminist rallying cry “Boys Will Be Boys” at the end of her otherwise excellent sophomore album Future Nostalgia. Both tracks are boring, conventional ballads recycling overused jargon, and “Who We Love” commits the grave sin of featuring Smith’s British comrade Ed Sheeran, whose slight gravelly tenor doesn’t meld at all with Smith’s seductive croon.
Overall, Gloria resists the sort of grandeur and innovation it constantly hints at; much of the music from Smith’s early years as a blue-eyed soul act actually feels more bold than the short-lived thrills this album has to offer. At the end of these 13 tracks and 33 minutes, you wind up happy for Smith amid their new era of self-proclaimed “liberation,” but wishing they had expanded these musical ideas further. But it’s a nice first draft.