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ALBUM REVIEW: Sam Smith's Polarizing 'GLORIA'

"It feels like emotional, sexual and spiritual liberation," explains Sam Smith. "It feels like I've got my faith back, in my work. So it was beautiful, with this album, to sing freely again, for me. It feels like a coming of age."

Gloria, Sam Smith's fourth album, is not only a creative revelation but something of a personal revolution. After three soulful, poignant albums - In The Lonely Hour (2014), The Thrill Of It All (2017) and Love Goes (2020) - that were rewarded with a staggering 35 million albums sold, 250 million singles, 45 billion multi-platform streams and a host of honors that include four GRAMMY® Awards, three BRITs, one Oscar and a Golden Globe, Smith embarked on their fourth album with a self-appointed challenge. "I was not gonna write a heartbreak album," Smith declares. "A challenge that was huge! I wanted this to be the opposite. When I was a kid, just walking out of the house, I needed armor. Rihanna, Robyn, Beyoncé, they were my armor. And I feel like Gloria is the album I needed that I never had."

Gloria is the sound of constricting shackles crashing to the floor, of boundaries joyfully breached, of a still-searching talent discovering what it means to be truly free - to be in touch with their innermost self. The album's title is not a nod to a person, past or present, but to that bristling, enigmatic life force, which Smith has christened Gloria.

A trio of female voices from across the globe - Colombian/Canadian R&B-pop maverick Jessie Reyez, who will be the special guest on Smith's 2023 North American arena tour, German/American pop icon Kim Petras and breakout Jamaican reggae/rap star Koffee - joined Sam on the journey. "There's a huge female influence on Gloria," notes Smith. "I made sure the rooms I was in had that balance. Which was wonderful. Because it's been very male-heavy in my career in terms of co-writers and producers."

Long-term collaborators Jimmy Napes, Stargate and Max Martin stablemate ILYA also helped fuel Gloria, which boldly weaves between glitterball electro-pop, glorious melodic reverie, Jamaican dancehall freak-pop, exquisite piano balladry and a choir-sung hymn. Similarly, the lyrics dive deep and wide, exploring sex, lies, passion, self-expression, imperfection and toxic masculinity.

Sam's voice, which Beyoncé has likened to "butter," is more profoundly moving than ever. With album opener "Love Me More," they embrace newfound self-worth and say goodbye to their musical past. "Now," says Smith, "there's a clear road ahead in terms of what I want to express." "No God" follows, with atmospheric strings providing a counterpoint to Smith's commentary on the divisive opinions circulating in Los Angeles during the Trump days of the Covid era. "You're no god, you're no teacher, you're no saint, you're no leader," the lyrics chide. The song segues into the first of two inspirational interludes, "Hurting Interlude," an excerpt from a news anchor covering New York's first-ever Pride celebration.

The euphoric, electro-pop "Lose You," written for a lesbian friend going through her first break-up, provides what Sam describes as "my Kylie meets George Michael meets Abba moment." "Perfect," written in Malibu with Jessie Reyez and featuring her kittenish, sultry vocals, celebrates imperfection and desire.

"Jessie helped me express my sex," says Smith. "To say things I've always wanted to say, that were really hard to say in rooms of men. "It's this courageous spirit that defines "Unholy" (ft. Kim Petras), the hit single that Smith recalls was originally "abandoned by everyone because it was too dangerous!"

"Unholy" was recorded during Sam's first-ever session at L.A.'s Capitol Studios. As the spotlight turned on Kim Petras, the energy in the room was decidedly unbalanced. The song went on to spend three weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and four weeks atop the UK Official Singles Chart. It was the only pop collaboration of 2022 to be certified RIAA Platinum and amassed over one billion combined global streams prior to the album's release.

Gloria's most tender, vulnerable moment follows, "How To Cry," an acoustic reflection on a relationship where Smith gave "all the emotion, honesty and truth, and all I got was a closed door." In a mere eight seconds, "Dorothy's Interlude" splices together pivotal moments from modern queer history - pioneering drag artist Divine in Pink Flamingos, Judy Garland's "Somewhere Over The Rainbow," trans activist Sylvia Rivera's speech at a 1973 gay liberation rally and the 1991 ballroom culture documentary Paris Is Burning.

"Gloria" is a hymn Sam wrote in lockdown, completed with folk/blues musician Foy Vance and recorded with a local choir in St Mary's Catholic Church in Saffron Walden - the church Smith attended as a child. It's another first for them, "my queer love hymn, saying life is a song to Gloria, the thing I can't put a word to. I don't know if it's nature or a feminine energy inside me that I'm setting free."

Closing it out is "Who We Love," a piano ballad celebrating universal love that was begun by Smith's friend Ed Sheeran, crafted together in Sheeran's home studio and completed as a duet. "It's a special song," says Smith. "Me and Ed have a beautiful relationship as friends, firstly, and I never wanted to blur those lines with music. But he came to me with the beginnings of the song and it felt like a gift. It's gorgeous."

"Gloria is also a celebration, of all the genres and all the female divas, vocalists and pop writers that I love," says Smith. "I harnessed all those memories and put them into one album. And I wanted to be defiant. My diva album? I think so! I think I've finally let my Gloria out."


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