“Gloria” – Sam Smith (Review)

Brooke J. Freundschuh, Editor-in-Chief

The Grammys did not happen unless there was one performance that made the world question Hollywood’s morals. This year the honor goes to Sam Smith and Kim Petras’ performance of “Unholy”, the lead single from Smith’s fourth solo record, “Gloria,” which was released by Capitol Records on Jan. 27, 2023.

I must wholeheartedly admit that there are moments of “Gloria” that I, as a heterosexual, cis-gendered person, may not be able to fully understand and appreciate for the meaning they may have for individuals with the same life experiences as Smith. The true measure of an album’s brilliance is the level at which it makes people feel. I understand many of these tracks may have deeper meanings for others than they do for me. 

“Gloria” is the tale of a person that is coming up in a world that has become open to the idea of homosexuality and gender fluidity, yet does not experience acceptance or peace within their own life and inner-circle. 

“Love Me More” is Smith acknowledging their journey to self-confidence. One of the lines I find most intriguing on the whole album is, “so I tried every night to sit with sorrow, and eventually, it set me free.” The behavior Smith describes is reflexive of a practice taught in cognitive behavioral therapy: exposing oneself to the intrusive thought until it becomes less scary. The song in itself represents progress and celebrating a milestone in a journey, no matter how small. It also introduces the gospel-choir theme that recurs throughout the record. 

Smith describes the production of “No God” as “sounding expensive.” They describe the lyrics as being about losing someone to their extreme opinions. This track also directly introduces the element of control in a negative context for the first time, another common-denominator amongst the album’s tracks. It seems to potentially reference the same character as the later track, “How To Cry.” “I know you’re trying to heal the world. You’re only trying to prove your worth, oh baby, just watch your word,” and other lyrics tell a familiar story of a well-meaning individual who causes more harm than good, another bold take on some who practice modern religion. 

“Having to lie, I feel, is the saddest and the ugliest part of being a homosexual.When you have your first bad love experience, for example, and you can’t go to your brother or your sister and say ‘I’m hurting.’” These startling words, spoken by reporter Lilli Vincenz, comprise the 18 second long “Hurting Interlude”.

“Lose You” is overall unremarkable in my opinion. It is textbook pop with relatively generic lyricism, but Smith’s vocals are a high point. Their voice is enjoyable to listen to, even when the song selection is not the best. However, Smith told Genius that their goal for this song was for it to sound like it came out of a Berlin gay club, and it hits that nail on the head. 

I’m putting my formal request in now for Smith to form a supergroup with Kim Petras and Jessie Reyez. “Perfect” is the first of three tracks that Smith collaborated with Reyez on for “Gloria.” This is my personal favorite of the three. “Perfect” pleads for a long-term commitment in a world of one-night-stands. “I used to love the night life, until the night life…” Smith and Reyez open their stories as they pitch themselves to a future, long-term lover. 

Smith and Petras made history at the Grammys by becoming the first transgender and first non-binary persons to win a Grammy for Pop Duo/Group Performance for “Unholy.” This track has turned heads all over the world for its addictively catchy hook and beat. After their live performance on the Grammy stage, they are the newest symbols for Satanic Hollywood. This follows roughly a year after Lil Nas X was in the headlines for the same reasons for his music video and performances of “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” and the infamous “Satan shoes” he released in collaboration with Nike. Although these demonstrations may seem like blatant irreverence for Christianity, I believe both to be a reverse perspective on how, as members of the LGBTQ+ community, they constantly have Christian imagery used against them. In the case of “Unholy,” I also interpret it as pointing out the hypocrisy of some straight individuals who do not follow the morals they claim to follow in their own lives. In this case, “Unholy” tells the story of a man with a wife and kids who practices serial infidelity at stripclubs and brothels.

“How To Cry” is a shining moment for lyricism and artistry on this record and is my personal favorite track. It examines a relationship with a man who has what may be considered a typical masculine approach to dealing with emotions: not dealing with them at all. It references the “first bad love experience” discussed in “Hurting” and in “No God.” This track tells of an individual who never learned to process their emotions, and instead suppresses them to a point of damaging their loved ones. Although this track points to being about a romantic relationship, it could easily be about a best friend, parent or sibling. It is one of several mature moments on the record in which Smith dissects what made those in their life act the way they do now. 

“Six Shots” is a well-produced, sexually charged ballad about a blossoming new relationship and fear of being vulnerable. With it comes an air of  confidence that carries over into the next track, “Gimme.” This song sounds like driving through a light-lined tunnel at night, and that’s the only way I can describe it. 

Following the theme of this record being about Smith’s journey through navigating their sexuality, “Dorothy’s Interlude” features a clip of Judy Garland’s voice from”Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The interludes on “Gloria” do a great job of solidifying thematic elements of the record while not attempting to tell full-length stories on their own. In Halsey’s 2020 record, “Manic,” her interludes are full songs, but the interludes in “Gloria” accentuate the tracks impactfully instead of standing alone.  

Smith makes their life transparent throughout their music, and Reyez’s multiple features on this album establishes the quality of both their personal friendship and musical partnership. “I’m Not Here To Make Friends” has the durability to hold up next to “Unholy.” While it may not be as catchy or have the replayability factor or be the face of a TikTok trend, it has star power and will get stuck in the listener’s head. With Calvin Harris production, it has all the potential to be Smith’s second big hit off the record. Do not let this one get lost on the back half of the album. This track serves as a culmination of other songs on the record, incorporating factors from “Perfect” and “Six Shots” as well as providing its own unique take on the modern search for love. “Thirty almost got me, and I’m so over love songs,” Smith expresses.

The track “Gloria” brings the elements of the record that I’ve identified so far into perspective. Smith recorded the track in a cathedral, and it is a full display of the choral elements that accented many of the songs prior to it. The underlying theme of religion has been present throughout the full record. When discussing the track, Smith revealed that their inner monologue’s name is Gloria. “Gloria” is the voice that propels them forward. 

No complaints can be made about the vocal allure generated by a Sam Smith and Ed Sheeran duet, however, I feel the final song would be a little bit more impactful if the writing introduced an element or idea that has not been done by so many artists in recent years. One cannot expect a song with the main hook being “we love who we love” to be groundbreaking lyrically, unless there is some kind of twist incorporated, which, spoiler alert, there is not. While meaningful in the narrative of navigating one’s journey of self-acceptance, especially in sexuality, there are stronger moments, including the title-track, that Smith could have ended the record on. 

Although the pop production glistens, much of the lyricism on “Gloria” leaves more to be desired. Smith is undeniably talented vocally and has a beautiful creative mind, but for their next project, I would love to see deeper dives into some of these issues and an avoidance of lyrics that are cliche or safe. 

“Gloria” is reflexive. I believe it to be an album Smith needed to make, although it may not be their all-time best, it is a memoir of growth. It is therapeutic. It is unapologetically gay, just as Smith intended.