Music

A Queerer Sam Smith: Album Review and Song Ranking for Love Goes

Maddy Yardumian ’21
Editor-in-Chief

Sam Smith released their studio third album, “Love Goes,” on Oct. 30. Though they’re known for their striking singing voice and emotional ballads, Smith’s newest album is much more than just a series of sad love songs.

The first half of the album (namely “Diamonds,” “Another One,” and “Dance (’Til You Love Somebody Else) finetunes Smith’s newfound pop sound while the second half (“Forgive Myself,” “Love Goes,” and “Kids Again”) builds upon their extensive ballad repertoire. The Bonus Tracks are a medley of these distinct categories, containing songs like the sensual and triumphant “I’m Ready,” (featuring Demi Lovato) and the passionate love song “Fire on Fire.”

Multifaceted and colorful, this generic split allows Smith to take on ballads and dance anthems in equal measure, producing an album which pays homage to the emotionally-charged and forlorn nature of Smith’s earlier sound without being defined by it. The record blends this more recognizable sound with a new version of Smith, who sings some of the clubby, disco songs which dominate gay male culture (Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Madonna—songs which notably, are typically sung by women who are icons of the gay community rather than by gay men or nonbinary folks). Through playing with genre and self-representation, “Love Goes” is an album of decisive generic and gender queerness, reflecting Smith’s own nonbinary, queer identity. Speaking about this generic tension earlier on in an interview with GQ Magazine, Smith said:

“I call [my new music] ‘dance and cry music’– all stemming from disco. You know, you listen to certain disco songs and they’re very sad lyrically… I did the cry part and now it’s time to do the dance part. You know, all my lyrics, whether it’s ‘Dancing With a Stranger’ or even ‘Promises,’ they’re really sad. The juxtaposition is what makes it gay.”

Departing from their typical ballad format was no easy feat, even though it’s a shift listeners already know to have been worthwhile based on the success of tracks such as “Dancing With a Stranger” (feat Normani). Smith describes the difficulty of breaking from the more ballad style of their previous two albums in the album description on Apple Music:

“I felt at one point that I was going to be trapped onstage wearing a suit and singing ballads for the rest of my life. When I look back at this album, it reminds me of the courage it took… The risks that I took and the stress that it caused for me to truly be myself and express myself in a queer way was really difficult. I’m proud of myself for doing that.”

The somewhat eclectic album is tied together by a number of common themes. This is a Sam Smith record, so needless to say, most, if not all, of the songs on “Love Goes” center love. Though focusing on romantic love, the songs also notably chronicle Smith’s journey to self-love and understanding.

Compellingly, Smith writes about heartbreak without taking cheap shots at their exes. The Independent reviewer Fiona Sturges criticizes the album for being too “kind and decent”, lamenting that “you long for it to land a few punches.” The album is decisively a break-up record, depicting Smith’s split with 13 Reasons Why actor Brendan Flynn. But I see the album’s refusal to place blame squarely on one person in the aftermath of a breakup as one of its greatest strengths. The album is willing to complicate the “I’ve been wronged” or “I was wrong” narrative that overpopulates pop music. It stages the experience of Smith learning to process their emotions and let go of that which does not serve them: “Now and then you cross my mind / It takes me back to a sweeter time / But I let it go / I let you go,” they declare on the pre-chorus to stand-out ballad “Forgive Myself.”

In this way, “Love Goes” articulates a stark vulnerability, creating a space for the listener to heal and grow from heartbreak right along with Smith.

My ranking of the songs from “Love Goes” will only include the 11 new releases for the sake of brevity, but their album does include 17 songs total—the final six all being previously released singles.

11. So Serious- “So Serious” is one of the few songs on “Love Goes” that ventures strictly into pop territory without the hints of disco that inflect Smith’s other works. “Put your hands in the air if you ever get sad like me,” Smith begins to the sound of synthesizers in the backtrack, leaning into and toying with their perception as an emotional balladeer. Though the song valiantly attempts to craft a playful song about mental health, the lyrics are a little vague and the backing a little too bubblegum pop to have the intended impact. Overall, “So Serious” is a solid pop song but just a touch forgettable.

10. Another One- “Another One” opens with synthesizers and a piano track, with clear potential to be played on the radio or remixed in clubs. The song is another of Smith’s collaborations with Disclosure, who worked with Smith on their hit song “Latch.” Worries that the album was going to be entirely dominated by Smith’s new pop sound kept me from appreciating this song on my first listen. Overall, it’s a catchy pop song about moving on from your ex after you see them dating someone new, which isn’t a particularly novel concept. The songwriting is where this song shines. Rather than being bitter and vengeful, the song describes Smith meeting their ex’s new partner and wishing them well: “I met your boyfriend he’s beautiful / Please treat him like he’s someone / Someone perfect, someone so divine” because “I don’t want him to hurt like me.” Smith is thus able to retain the song’s sadness while remaining mature and graceful, refusing to misdirect their frustrations toward their ex’s new partner. “God, I dodged a bullet / I ran fast right through it / I loved myself too much to fight you,” Smith proclaims, crafting a breakup song of self-love with a slightly forgettable pop backdrop.

9. For the Lover That I Lost- This song is a typical Sam Smith piano ballad, and in that, a beautiful showcase of their voice. But the verses have slightly vague lyrics, invoking a number of cliches to get across the idea of a lost love. Perhaps this makes sense given that Smith ultimately chose to give the song to Celine Dione, who recorded it on her 2019 album Courage. In a way, the song is less personal to Smith, like a cover, and doesn’t need to retain the personal nature of their other songs. These nondescript lyrics make it difficult to invest in the song from the beginning. But by the end, Smith’s smooth vocals soar over the understated piano backing with simple but effective lyrics about roses. It is not the most memorable song on the album and relies heavily on the power of Sam Smith’s voice paired with simple piano backing to make it what it is. But the power of their voice does do a great deal.

8. Young- Smith opens their album with “Young,” a piece made up entirely of a cappella harmonies. The harmonies are gorgeous and haunting, dictating lyrics about the pressures of fame in a way that mimics the feeling of being watched. Many artists have written about the dark side of fame, including Ariana Grande, who released her album “positions” the same day as Smith, with an opening song “shut up” that is very similar to “Young.” Though the theme of fame being taxing is hardly an original one, Smith’s interpretation is a nice iteration of it, even if “Young” does feel more like an interlude than an album opening.

7. My Oasis (feat. Burna Boy)- This song is an unlikely but pleasant collaboration between Sam Smith and Nigerian sensation Burna Boy. “My Oasis” provides the space for both artists to display their talents and complement one another’s distinctive sound. The song is dark but sensual, with glimmering piano that seems to give off the feeling of light reflected on water in a mirage. Complete with seductive guitar riffs but a slightly understated chorus, the song focuses on creating a specific sensory experience for its audience, simulating the hazy elusiveness of an oasis. The song is reminiscent of Smith’s 2013 song “Nirvana.” Though it is a striking collaboration between two talented artists, it falls short of being one of the more memorable tracks on the album. The song relies too much on the surface level sensory experience of the piece and not enough on lyrics or giving the song more musical complexity–ironic, given that the song itself is about surface level illusions.

6. Kids Again- As the song that ends the album, “Kids Again” loses a few points for having a somewhat awkward opening, with brash-sounding guitar chords introducing the viewer to the track. But by the first chorus, the listener is absorbed by Smith’s plea for their first love to look back on their relationship with affection and nostalgia: “Do you even think about it / the way that we changed the world? / And don’t it make you sad? / That we’ll never be kids again / Tell me how you live without it / Did somebody change your world / And now you don’t look back?” Wrapped up in the world of longing for childhood and innocence, the album’s conclusion reminds listeners that youth is fleeting and, in opposition to the album’s beginning track “Young,” ends in a place of looking to the future and reckoning with growing up. It’s simple, poignant, and a powerful way to end an album that grapples directly with questions of identity and selfhood.

5. Breaking Hearts- There’s a soft, almost plucky sadness to “Breaking Hearts” that makes it an especially intriguing track. Layered harmonies reminiscent of Sam Smith’s past sound and a peppy piano backtrack are brought out by simple and startlingly sincere lyrics: “you were busy breaking hearts / I was busy breaking / I was giving all my love / you were busy taking.” “Breaking Hearts” feels like a genre of its own: a bouncy break-up song with a subtle twinge of sarcastic sweetness, rounded out by brief flashes of harmony and the delicate resignation of violin strings.

4. Dance (’Til You Love Someone Else)- Described by Smith as “the sequel to ‘Dancing With a Stranger,’ “Dance” is a broody pop song that demands to be… well, danced to. Inspired by Robyn’s “Dancing on my Own,” Smith’s track is both catchy and musically inventive. Specific highlights include the moments of harmony on the repeated “dance” line and the song’s genre-blending dark disco pop sound, which seems to demand the listeners’ attention. The pre-chorus’ centering line is deceptively simple: “They say you can’t fall out of love ’til you love someone else” is clearly a fun sexual innuendo on such a glimmering, club-worthy song but the line also reminds us of the reality that we often struggle to let our past loves go before we make a new romantic connection to distract us. Overall, this song uses the tensions of different genres to its advantage by creating a dance track that feels as high-stakes as it is unique.

3. Diamonds- According to the Apple Music synopsis of the song, “Diamonds” is Smith’s attempts to write from the perspective of “a really rich woman whose husband had left her and taken all her things. She’s just in this wedding dress in the middle of a huge mansion. Think Moira Rose of Schitt’s Creek.” This song, one of the singles of Love Goes, is the anthem of the wealthy and wronged. The song begins with an incantation of the word “Diamonds” over and over that sounds decadent and enchanting, almost like diamonds clinking. The verses then pull back into simple piano chords, building up to a beat drop in the chorus with excellent pay-off. The second verse mirrors the first, with the addition of simple guitar riffs and harmonies that further the songs build into an explosive second chorus. “Material love won’t fool me / When you’re not here I can breathe / Think I always knew / My diamonds leave with you,” Smith sings, depicting a superficial love that the speaker always knew deep-down to be false. The transfixing incantation of “Diamonds” then returns in the bridge before cutting to a quieter rendition of the brooding pre-chorus. “Diamonds” is skillfully able to build and subsequently pull the rug out from the listener at the right moments. Glossy, hypnotic, and decadent, the song is Smith’s new disco-inflected pop sound at its best, in the service of a gender-bended critique of material and capitalist culture.

2. Love Goes (feat. Labrinth)- I expected this song to be an interlude at the very beginning, the beautiful yet catchy piano riff being enough to make up its own song. Labrinth’s voice is then layered onto the track for the first verse, breaking into a delicate chorus on top of the piano riff, a repetition of the phrase “That’s how love goes.” While deceptively simple, it’s quite a versatile line, capable of meaning both “that’s how things go when you love someone” or “this is how love ends” at the same time. Smith chimes in on the next verse, as the two singers take turns describing preemptively ending a relationship before it can dissolve itself. The song investigates a much more complicated experience than most pop songs dare to: the moment when a relationship ends because the two people are simply not the right person for one another in this moment in time. The eerie, a cappella-driven bridge, seems to mimic the confusion and in-betweenness of ending a relationship when a person still means a great deal to you. In this moment, the song expresses the enduring affection that two people share for one another even after something ends, even if they’re unsure of what the future could hold: “Saying someday I’ll be back / Don’t hold your breath / Just know I own a place / For you always.” The song then shifts dramatically to an explosion of trumpets and declarative vocal riffs, indicating the light at the end of the tunnel, or fully getting over someone. The song then concludes with yet another shift to gentle violin strings, signaling the more quiet self-reflection that comes from healing after the end of a relationship. Both musically and lyrically, this song is stunning. It makes the whopping 4:45 time stamp fly by, captivating its listener in the great beauty and ache that comes from heartbreak and the reminder that love can go or fade but never fully ends.

1. Forgive Myself- This song is a true Sam Smith piano power ballad. Forgoing the peppy synth of the other tracks, the song begins with driving piano chords and a question: “Do you think of me when you’re in California alone? / It’s a lonely place at the best of times, Lord knows.” The simple piano backing paired with personal, sincere lyrics bring out the luxuriousness of Smith’s voice. The song is also a twist on a classic break-up song, where Smith focuses on their role in their relationship’s end and forgiving themself of the mistakes they made so they can move forward: “But you’re not here, baby, and I can’t love anyone else / ‘Til I forgive myself.” The song delves into the aching feeling that comes from losing the sense of possibility a relationship interjects into your life: “Guess we’ll never know all the beautiful things we could be.” This song is Sam Smith at their very best: poignant, tender and devastating. “Forgive Myself” is the perfect break-up ballad for all your crying or self-reflecting needs and a standout on “Love Goes.”

All in all, Sam Smith’s album pays homage to their passion for gay disco, “the music that queer people kiss to and cry to at the same time,” as Smith put it in the aforementioned interview with GQ. Further explaining the importance of music to the queer community, Smith elaborates:

“I think that music is a lifeline. Because it was a lifeline to me as a 13-year-old overweight boy confused about his gender and his sexuality and being bullied at school. It was going home, sitting in my bedroom and turning on Lady Gaga’s ‘Just Dance.’ And that’s what got me through my day.”

Crafting music that is heart-wrenching, catchy and sincere, in addition to being generically queer, Sam Smith has created an album that is more than just a collection of beautiful songs but an act of queer self-making. As forlorn as it is energetic, with love as its center, “Love Goes” gives queer and straight listeners alike a glimpse into Smith’s journey toward self-love and, if they need it, a lifeline in these difficult times.

Image Source: SamSmithWorld.com

Leave a Comment