The pop crooner’s third album is at times freer, queerer, and more enlivening than anything Sam Smith has done before, and yet too cautious to make what could’ve been a career-defining leap.
In the music video for their surprisingly vibrant single “How Do You Sleep?” Sam Smith, usually the purveyor of masochistic melodrama and sexless shmaltz, blossoms into someone new. Surrounded by half-naked dancers, the British superstar writhes, snarls, and moves their body with coquettish sensuality. It culminates in a hypnotizing choreography sequence where Smith and their dancers mime sleep while, staring deep into the camera, they slowly rock their hips. It’s uncanny, playful, and sexy. Moments later, Smith lets a smile loose, running their hands over their head in what looks like utter ecstasy.
“How Do You Sleep?” was a revelatory moment for a pop star who, save for their breakout song, had relied on a stale combination of mopey piano, campy gospel choir, and self-flagellating heartbreak; it’s a formula that made them famous, but the songs increasingly blended together. The video gave hope that Smith, who came out as nonbinary and changed their pronouns a few months after the single’s release, was proud to embrace their queerness and was finally moving past their typical, buttoned-up schlock.
Love Goes, Smith’s third album, unfortunately fails to deliver on the promise of “How Do You Sleep?” The album is clumsily split in two, with no regard to sequencing; it begins with a collection of bubbling, at times electric songs spanning melodic funk, pulsing deep-house, and mid-tempo pop, before abruptly veering to five messy ballads that would be better delivered via Hallmark card. As bonus tracks, if the album wasn’t unbalanced enough, Love Goes tacks on six promotional singles after the ballads, like the hugely successful, Normani-assisted “Dancing with a Stranger,” the theatrical Demi Lovato team-up “I’m Ready,” and the Calvin Harris-produced club hit “Promises.” Replacing these songs, which would have fit well on Love Goes, with boilerplate Smith ballads with titles like “For the Lover That I Lost” and “Breaking Hearts” feels like a calculated, and ultimately ineffectual, attempt to keep the fans of Smith’s earlier records engaged despite Smith’s attempts at exploring new sounds. The result is an unbalanced and frustrating album, one that is at times freer, queerer, and more enlivening than anything Smith’s done before, and yet too cautious to make what could’ve been a career-defining leap.
The Smith we meet on Love Goes’s first half is, thankfully, missing much of the self-pity that made In the Lonely Hour and The Thrill of It All so difficult to empathize with (perhaps because Love Goes was based on the disintegration of Smith’s first real relationship, instead of on the heartbreak of unrequited love; their songwriting has improved as a result). Single “Diamonds” is an absolute smash—melodic and morose, but pulsing with resistance and joy, it’s a dancefloor-filling breakup anthem that is actually believable. It’s remarkable how much better Smith sounds over quality pop production; their voice, with its ridiculously elastic range, is an instant gut-punch, a wrecking ball of emotional devastation that conveys feeling all on its own. On “Another One,” a deliciously petty yet disarming message to an ex who moved on, Smith reunites with Disclosure’s Guy Lawrence over pulsing 808 drums and twinkling synths that echo Robyn. The best, cheekiest writing comes on the infectious “So Serious,” which finds Smith acknowledging their addiction to emotional theatrics. “The second that I’m happy and I’m fine,” they sigh, “Suddenly there’s violins and movie scenes and/Crying rivers in the streets and/God I don’t know why, I get so serious sometimes.”
“Dance (’Til You Love Someone Else),” also produced by Lawrence, is Smith’s attempt at a ’90s house song. Lawrence and co-producer Two Inch Punch nail the reverberating melodrama of classic heartbreak-on-the-dancefloor epics, while Smith, sidestepping mere imitation, uses the force of the instrumental to howl, wounded and brazen and determined. It’s no “Show Me Love,” but the track nonetheless captures the intangible experience of losing yourself on a sweaty dancefloor at a gay club, where dancing, for a moment, is enough to get over an ex.
“Dance” is the final highlight; Love Goes sputters right after. The next four songs all begin with somber piano, as if Smith, and their label, suddenly remembered the commercial tidal wave that was “Stay With Me.” Thankfully, Smith and their collaborators have rid themselves of their uncomfortable reliance on the sound of Black choirs, but the result is just as cringeworthy. Two songs after laughing at their own predisposition for melodrama, Smith laments how “while you were busy breaking hearts/I was busy breaking,” on the nearly unlistenable “Breaking Hearts.” Any hope of artistic evolution implodes on “Love Goes,” an overstuffed collaboration with the British singer/producer Labrinth that is one part Sam Smith karaoke and two parts amateur GarageBand clusterfuck, with competing instrumental layers fighting it out for supreme, headache-inducing dominance. It builds without consequence until a sudden explosion of timpani drums and horns; the BPM accelerates and a faux-hip-hop beat drops, as if Flume drank two bottles of Chenin blanc and tried to produce the rest.
Listening to Smith fresh out of high school, it was as if a vortex had swallowed the pain of my coming out, rejection, and self-discovery, and spit it back in my face. Yet its impact dulled with each listen. The loneliness and self-pity of Smith’s music has never evolved beyond generalized mushiness, and as a result fails to truly capture the nuance and complication of adulthood and queerness, heartbreak and redemption. It’s one-size-fits-all musical masochism that, in attempting to touch the masses, really touches no one. It works spectacularly to sell records. But when put up against the stuff of real life, or the wrenching emotional artistry of stars like Adele or Frank Ocean—musicians who construct entire worlds out of their experience and feeling—it quickly disintegrates. For a brief moment last summer, swaying their hips and reaching for the sky, Smith seemed ready to leave the formula behind, to reveal something new about themselves, to maybe, even, show us a way to look at our own pain. And then the piano started playing.
Buy: Rough Trade