Many people will already have heard the best song on Gloria, Sam Smith’s fourth studio album. “Unholy”, Smith’s collaboration with the cult German singer Kim Petras, is a feast of pop debauchery written only to make your jaw drop. A clip of the track went viral on TikTok more than a month before the song was even released. It had been streamed more than a billion times before the album arrived today (27 January).
“Unholy” dirties and subverts the glory, honour and graciousness implied by the album’s title. Within this collection of comparably placid, unremarkable songs “Unholy”, which uses a scale often found in Middle Eastern music and bounces with a hyperpop beat, seems even more buoyant. “Mummy don’t know Daddy’s getting hot at the body shop, doing something unholy,” is the irresistible refrain.
It makes the rest of Gloria look feeble. Smith, who at 30 counts among their accolades four Grammys, three Brit Awards, and both a Golden Globe and an Oscar for their James Bond theme song, came out as non-binary in September 2019. The vulnerability of their break-out 2014 hit “Stay With Me”, a gospel ballad about a one night stand, was striking. As was their easy shrug into heavier club numbers, such as “Promises”, their 2018 dance-pop collaboration with Calvin Harris. Gloria, they have said, is their “coming-of-age” record, marking a moment of “emotional, sexual and spiritual liberation”. It’s a beautiful, freeing sentiment, of which contemporary pop could always have more, but the music does not match it.
“Every day I’m trying not to hate myself/But lately it’s not hurting like it did before,” Smith sings, their journey to self love summarised in just two lines, on the record’s opening track “Love Me More”. Smith’s undeniable talent is their vocal power. Their voice is truly virtuosic, in the way that Whitney Houston’s was, so it’s painful to hear autotune dulling it on these verses, quelling any hope of Smith’s emotional “journey” – cliché-ridden as it may be – stirring anything deep in listeners.
This dubious beginning sets the tone for a record of inauthentic attempts at real connection. A 20-second-long “Hurting Interlude” features an archive recording over tepid strings. “Having to lie, I feel, is the saddest and the ugliest part of being a homosexual,” they say. “When you have your first bad love experience, and you can’t go to your brother or your sister and say, ‘I’m hurting.’ ” It’s a poignant sentiment, but is too flatly presented to be moving. It’s impossible to listen to that and then really believe in the emotion Smith attempts on “How to Cry”, a pared-back ballad on which they croon over acoustic guitar. It feels contrived, all breathy in the verses and reaching the predictable climactic heights in the chorus.
The rest of the album runs as you’d expect. “Six Shots” is the slinky, sexy number, here mottled with a little self-deprecation, while “Perfect”, featuring the Canadian songwriter Jessie Reyez, leans into the relaxed R&B Smith has dabbled in throughout their career. “Lose You” is a club banger filled with longing – and yet more unnecessary autotune. “Who We Love”, an overly sentimental song, features the least original artist anyone could possibly invite to duet with them: Ed Sheeran. Only the title track, an a cappella choral number that Smith performs with London Voices, a choir known for its film and video game work, is at all notable. The sheer vocal power of “Gloria” is transfixing. It is almost the spiritual and sonic opposite to “Unholy”, yet just as startling.
Smith is one of the UK’s foremost pop artists. Their political impact is great: they were widely regarded as influencing the Brit Awards to lose their gendered best artist categories, which shook up the industry’s understanding of gender (despite backfiring this year). Their music has inspired a generation of solo stars singing emotional balladry, from Lewis Capaldi to the Eurovision contestant Sam Ryder. There is no doubt that Smith is mainstream, but that does not mean they have to play it so musically safe. As the wild success of “Unholy” showed, pop audiences are crying out for innovation. They will find scant originality here.