In this third studio Sam Smith album, the pop crooner has us crying in and out of the dance floor
There’s no denying that Sam Smith’s chart-topping hits like Stay With Me, Lay Me Down and I’m Not The Only One have cemented their places in our generation’s songbook, but for folks like me who’ve been more attuned to their electronic and dance-leaning collaborations with Disclosure (Latch and Omen), Normani (Dancing with a Stranger) and Calvin Harris (Promises), among others, the British crooner’s third studio album Love Goes is a welcome gear shift, albeit a half-hearted one.
Love Goes marks Smith’s first release since coming out as nonbinary and switching to “they/them” pronouns, no doubt allowing them to break new ground in terms of musical direction while exhibiting this newfound freedom tied to self-enlightenment. Album opener Young puts Smith’s distinct vocals at the forefront, an a capella track alluding to the pressures and limitations that come with youth spent in and taken away by the spotlight. It’s a power move to be able to already lay yourself bare at the onset of an album, and the spare production and layered vocals lend a blunt honesty to this Troye Sivan-adjacent track.
The strongest parts of this Sam Smith album lie where they emulate the likes of Robyn, Lorde and Lykke Li with a cathartic line-up of sad up-tempo bangers we can cry to on the dance floor. Diamonds, Another One and Dance (‘Til You Love Someone Else) are particularly sassy in their delivery. You can tell Smith’s trying to hold their head up high on these tracks. The tongue-in-cheek approach almost fools us into a sense of self-assurance and security, but there’s always a bitterness that cuts through the façade. They sing lines like “Material love won’t fool me / When you’re not here, I can breathe” on Diamonds and “God, I dodged a bullet / I ran fast right through it” on Another One, and yet this sharp spite against the ex still lingers, as caught in that space between denial and anger.
So Serious has Smith in their most grounded, seeking comfort in sadness as a shared experience. The playful synths provide contrast to the otherwise somber lyrics about depression smacking you in the face when you least expect it—“‘Cause the second that I’m happy and I’m fine / Suddenly there’s violins and movie scenes / And cryin’ rivers in the street.” That kind of imagery is what I found myself craving for come the middle ballad-forward section of the album, but Smith ends up telling instead of showing with lines like “I felt depression deep in my soul” in Breaking Hearts and “All those nights, the lows and highs / I share them all with you” on For The Lover That I Lost. This section is especially marred with trite lyricism which could have dug deeper instead of sticking to hollow dramatics. Operating on this same vein is Forgive Myself, which would have been so ripe with introspection but instead retains some overindulgent moping.
The album starts picking up again with title track Love Goes, a collaboration with fellow British act Labrinth that introduces a thumping beat against the otherwise bland piano progression. Right as you ride its waves, the song abruptly introduces an uplifting brass section towards the end which, while a bold choice in its own right, feels a little undeserved given the rest of the song’s sparse production. Closer Kids Again stands out with its guitar-led arrangement—but its nostalgic feel lends a proper ending to the album, attaining a moment of calm acceptance.
One of the more apparent flaws of Love Goes, however, lies in its sequencing. Smith tells the story of heartbreak in uneven strokes that could have easily been remedied by moving some tracks around. Where we could have had a seamless progression throughout the stages of grief, Smith goes back and forth in a clumsy manner especially throughout the middle chunk of the album. So Serious, with its moments of clarity and self-awareness, could have benefited from a place in the latter half, while Dance (Til You Love Someone Else) easily deserves a spot among its sassy and bitter sisters in the first half. Early 2019 single How Do You Sleep? possesses the similar kind of sassiness and lush pre-breakup agony that could have earned its spot at the beginning of the album, as well.
On one hand, you could read this as a more accurate depiction of nonlinear recovery, but given their decision to include the pre-released singles and collaborations of last year as bonus tracks instead of making an effort to weave them into the rest of the album, it easily comes off as haphazard. As it is, there’s a clear break between the up-tempo songs and the ballads that allows the album to easily lose momentum. It gives itself leeway by catering to fans of both Smith’s crooner side and their dance club diva side but ends up with a half-baked and unfocused execution. Granted that their production process was interrupted by the pandemic and a lot of creative decisions were overturned out of sensitivity to our current context, Love Goes took risks but didn’t necessarily see them through to the end.
When Smith said in an interview with Apple Music that closer Kids Again has started to “lean into a more stripped-back, soulful musicality” that could act as a launchpad for the next Sam Smith album, it almost renders the pursuit of their dance pop diva side futile. This side we’re just starting to fully relish in after their coming out is, as it turns out, already halfway out the door, and I’m not sure its reached its full musical potential yet.
Sam Smith's Love Goes is available on all major music streaming platforms.
Words Bea Mata
Art Alexandra Lara