Sam Smith’s Love Goes is a step towards a more dynamic sound

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Sam Smith’s Love Goes is a step towards a more dynamic sound

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.

Album cover of ‘Love Goes’ by Sam Smith

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

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