Sam Smith has always self-consciously sought to be a big vocalist. The English artist isn’t someone to shrink into the corner – citing Gaga and Whitney as key influences, their performances are driven a certain kind of melodrama that is rarely found in modern pop music. At times, though, their work has been dogged by criticisms of being too polite, too down-the-middle, too beige, in fact, and it’s this dichotomy – between the extraordinary and the ruthlessly mundane – that marks third album ‘Love Goes’.
In the run up to the delayed release - ‘Love Goes’ was initially meant to be released earlier this year, and with a different title – Sam Smith was open about his motivations for the record. It’s a heartbreak album, they assured fans, in the most classic sense. At a whopping 17 tracks it’s a record that analyses the splinters of their shattered heart from a multitude of angles – at times it strikes home with unique savagery, but at others it fizzles out into nothingness.
But first, the highs. ‘So Serious’ is a wonderfully accomplished piece of songwriting, while the tumbling chords that accompany ‘Forgive Myself’ offer a graceful sense of self-assertion that sense chills down the spines of audiences, if and when they return. Top 10 smash ‘Dancing With A Stranger’ is still a gripping pop moment, and Normani’s stellar guest turn is part of a handle of carefully handled and expertly curated features.
Afrobeats isn’t exactly a genre Sam Smith is known for, but Burna Boy’s pivot on ‘My Oasis’ ups the energy at a key moment in the album’s arc. Labrinth’s appearance on the title song, however, is a little flat, while Demi Lovato’s potency on ‘I’m Ready’ is dimmed by some lacklustre songwriting moments.
It’s this inconsistency, then, that hampers ‘Love Goes’. Delayed due to the pandemic – it’s initial title was deemed inappropriate by Sam Smith – there’s a feeling that they’ve had just a little too long, a little too much space during the creative process. An epic discourse in heartbreak and what comes after, it struggles to maintain momentum, a record where lengthy flagging sections are held up by a handful of admittedly exemplary pop moments.
In the case of Sam Smith, they have rarely sung better – just watch out for those pirouetting trills on title song ‘Love Goes’ or sheer guts that underpins ‘Fire On Fire’ for example. The material is evidently personal, yet in a curiously contradictory fashion Sam often fails to drive the point home – there’s a certain emotional shyness that prevents ‘For The Lover That I Lost’, say, from truly breaking through.
Ultimately, when ‘Love Goes’ is good it can be very, very good. A record that could do with a little trimming, it’s almost tripped up by its own honesty. In ‘Love Goes’ Sam Smith has produced a flawed but decent return that mirrors the introspection of this strange, difficult year.
Words: Robin Murray
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