The third album from Sam Smith arrives amid mixed messages. Love Goes comes six months later than planned, renamed from To Die For. The latter is explained by Britain’s coronavirus death rate. The reasons for the former are less scrutable. Perhaps Smith deduced that mid-pandemic was not the right frame of mind to enjoy their latest album, which even hardcore fans would admit tends towards the self-absorbed and glum. There was also the “crying selfie” posted in March as Smith struggled to cope with lockdown: the inevitable criticism led by Piers Morgan prompted talk of a backlash.
Accordingly tweaked, Love Goes comes accompanied by a statement from Smith talking up its “experimental” nature and the collaborators who boldly “embraced my creativity and direction and allowed me to be whoever I wanted to be in the studio that day”, imploring fans to “listen with an open heart”, which seemed to suggest they might be in for a shock. Such talk was hard to square with their collaborators, including Shellback, Stargate and Steve Mac, the latter famed for his work with notoriously challenging Irish collective Westlife and for co-writing Rockabye, Clean Bandit’s 2016 Christmas No 1. Then Smith told Zane Lowe that they were “not ashamed” that Love Goes was tamer, creatively, than 2017’s The Thrill of It All. “Because at a moment of such unsafety in my life, all I wanted to feel was safe. So that’s honest to me.”
So, bold new departure, or more of the same? It would take a superhuman effort to call any of it “experimental”, but the music on Love Goes sounds different to that of its predecessor: out with the retro-soul affectations and the nods in the direction of Coldplay; in with misty pop-facing electronics, gentle tropical house shadings and Auto-Tuned backing vocals. You’ve heard it all before, but there’s a lot of melodically solid songwriting – particularly on singles Diamonds and Kids Again, the latter enlivened by a George Harrison-ish slide guitar solo – and the occasional mild surprise, as when title track bursts from piano ballad into martial brass, melodramatic strings and backing vocalists chanting “hey!” somewhat in the vein of Boney M’s Rasputin.
Equally, you sense Smith reaching for something that remains stubbornly out of their grasp. As its title suggests, Dance (’Til You Love Someone Else) is clearly inspired by Robyn’s Dancing on My Own, and why not? There’s a compelling argument that the 2010 hit is the greatest pop single of the last 20 years, a brilliant electronic rebooting of the old disco trick whereby euphoric club music is paired with lyrical despair. But in Smith’s hands it doesn’t quite work, largely because their euphoric club music isn’t particularly euphoric, four-to-the-floor beat or not: its solemn minor piano chords and synth washes feel opaque and mopey, and the disco string arrangement never quite spirals heavenwards, as if too careworn to muster the energy.
The lyrics stick fast to romantic misery, from infidelity to perfidious swine interested only in Smith’s bank balance. These are perennial topics for Smith, though as they told Lowe, their first two albums were inspired by unrequited love; Love Goes is apparently their “first proper heartbreak album”. In truth the difference feels like splitting hairs, particularly when you consider how The Thrill of It All actually came at that well-worn topic from unexpected angles: Midnight Train’s agonising over what their ex’s family thought of them; Burning’s examination of the consolation of smoking cigarettes in the aftermath of a break-up.
Here, the travails of Smith’s personal life seem to have drained them of the ability to speak in anything other than cliche: you get thorns in the side, poisoned chalices, darkest thoughts and rosy memories of summer wine in Breaking Hearts alone. There are intriguing intimations that these relationship disasters were underscored by nihilistic hedonism (“drug-fuelled fights about your lows and highs”) but the songs never probe deeper. The best moment comes on So Serious, where Smith gently mocks their image as pop’s leading purveyor of despair – “God, I don’t know why I get so serious sometimes … suddenly there’s violins and movie scenes and crying rivers in the street” – and cannily acknowledges that at least it’s good for business: “Put your hands in the air if you sometimes get sad like me.”
And maybe there’s something canny about Love Goes. Its gloom feels more amenable than that of The Thrill of It All: at no point here does Smith’s falsetto sound as eerie as it did on that album’s No Peace, and its shifts in musical style never obstruct its familiarity. For all Smith’s talk of experiments, perhaps that’s what they think their audience wants at this moment in time, 2020 having already delivered more than enough by way of the unfamiliar: an album that exists to waft sadly, but unobtrusively, in the background.
This week Alexis listened to
Lady Blackbird: Beware the Stranger (Ashley Beedle’s North Street West Vocal Mix)
Gilles Peterson has described LA’s Lady Blackbird as “the Grace Jones of jazz”: here her emotive vocal is remixed into subtly effective disco house.