The follow-up to Sam Smith’s first two hit albums opens with the sound of the British singer taking a deep breath as though taking a step into the unknown before singing the words: “I want to be wild and young and not be afraid to lose.”
Love Goes is their first album since becoming the most high-profile music star to announce themselves as having a non-binary gender identity. “I am not male or female,” Smith explained last year. “I think I float somewhere in between — somewhat on the spectrum.” For a mainstream performer, whose previous albums were among the biggest selling globally in their year of release, it’s a brave act of self-exposure. As Smith sings on “Young”, Love Goes’ opener: “If you want to judge me, God will load the gun.”
The album isn’t afraid to hand ammunition to prejudiced opponents. The various love interests on its songs are male — a use of pronouns (“he/him” in this case) whose boldness almost rivals Smith’s adoption of “they/them” for themself. Despite their history of subverting norms surrounding gender and sexuality, the charts remain in certain respects a fairly closeted place, unwilling to be too explicit about non-heterosexual experiences in songs. What is reckoned to be playable in Peoria still matters.
Despite Smith’s courageousness, that calculation isn’t entirely absent from Love Goes. The singer is self-assertive, but they aren’t confrontational. The album’s 17 tracks are about break-ups, with Smith taking the role of jiltee. The role calls for the listener’s sympathy, as does the singer’s peachy, tender voice, with its lusciously bruised tone. They sing of sadness a lot, but rarely rage. Meanwhile, the songs’ music stretches the boundaries of their stylistic conservatism — but not to breaking point.
The singer has spoken before of Amy Winehouse’s influence over their music (the deluxe version of their 2014 debut In the Lonely Hour included a torch-song cover of Winehouse’s “Love Is a Losing Game”). Where she was fierce and inspired, however, Smith has tended to be tastefully dull. This safety-first register resurfaces on Love Goes, in the form of the insipid acoustic ballad “Kids Again”. “I’m Ready” attempts to strike a more colourful note, but this would-be banger with Demi Lovato, in which both vocalists convey the effect of a tumultuous summer night of passion with a melodramatic display of over-singing, proves preposterously muddled.
Other songs achieve a better balance. A warm disco beat thrums through “Diamonds”, while “My Oasis” is a fluently emotive electronic ballad with guest singer Burna Boy. “Dance (Till You Love Someone Else)” finds Smith seeking solace on the dance floor. “To Die For” — originally the album’s title before the coronavirus pandemic caused a rethink — is a sweetly aching number about romantic longing. Although not the wild leap into the unknown suggested at the start, Love Goes marks a step forward for Smith, towards a more expressive and dynamic sound.
‘Love Goes’ is released by Capitol Records