After a long series of delays – and numerous successful singles to tide us over in the meantime, none of which made the final cut – soulful pop singer Sam Smith’s third studio album Love Goes finally sees the release it was supposed to at the beginning of this pandemic. While Smith has primarily been known for their dramatic and emotional romantic ballads, upbeat dance music has always been a passion lurking beneath the surface, and there’s quite a bit more of it here. Although it does remove a bit of the punch from Smith’s powerful instrument and a couple of these tracks certainly end up sounding rather derivative, drawing trends from the style’s apex of mainstream popularity years ago, the change of pace is an admirable venture. With quite a few of pop’s most successful producers behind the boards, Smith delivers a tight eleven tracks that doesn’t necessarily push anything forward, but successfully reimagines their role in today’s musical landscape.
Love Goes definitely skews more towards the electronic side, but its opening track “Young” shows all you need to know about where Smith’s most obviously affecting strengths lie. A stunning vocal showcase delivered completely a cappella, Smith tells a somber tale about losing the reckless spontaneity of their youth because their life was placed under the judgmental spotlight of celebrity. It’s one of the most emotionally striking performances of the year, Smith’s voice wavering as they belt it out before the harmonies drop away and they delivers the final chorus in a near-whisper – and it’s even better when Smith follows a recent trend of LGBTQ+ singers throwing any lyrical ambiguity about their sexuality out the window, which continues on the many of the rest of the tracks here. The opening track drops into current single “Diamonds,” a bassline-driven electropop dancefloor filler, hilariously described by Smith as both a “sexy exorcism” and inspired by recent Emmy champ Schitt’s Creek. Despite the shades of The Weeknd’s smash hit “Can’t Feel My Face” that are a little too obvious to ignore, the track is exactly what Smith needed to put their name back out into the public sphere with a completely different sound. Opening with eerie minor-key synth-piano touches, Smith transitions from the old sound to the new as they speed up their delivery in the pre-chorus, the drop catapulting them into a new world. Imagining a tale of a former lover who only got close to them to steal their possessions, the track is catchy enough to stand on its own but over-the-top and melodramatic enough to be undeniably Smith.
Smith has said that a vast majority of the album was inspired by the Robyn school of dancing the pain away – meaning, exuberant pop music disguising heart-wrenchingly sad lyrics. There are certainly a couple instances here where Smith demonstrates just how much of a genius level Robyn is on for pulling off something so difficult. The track “Another One” sees Smith wishing eye-rolling congratulations on an ex-partner evidently “winning” the break-up, advising them not to hurt their new partner like they did to Smith. It’s the kind of track that would be quintessential Smith material set to just the piano, but the shimmering disco effects the track is surrounded by almost feels like the instrumental is too much for Smith’s vulnerability, drowning out some of the emotional power in their performance. “Breaking Hearts,” on the other hand, doesn’t commit as hard to the outright dance-pop formulas, but the quicker tempo still feels like a bit of a mismatch for a song where Smith goes as far to say something like “I felt depression deep in my soul” and talks about “drug-fuelled fights.” The song coasts along like a cheerful millennial-pop tune, completely with finger snaps and background “oohs,” and it doesn’t connect emotionally like it should.
The album’s middle contains a couple of its strongest tracks, as Smith makes the most of combining their balladry with a more danceable backdrop. The track “So Serious” begins as Smith seeks validation, asking the audience to join them and admit the darkest feelings they sometimes succumb to before singing about “crying rivers in the street” set to one of the strongest dance-pop choruses here. The song’s real hook is a siren-esque synth tone that follows the chorus up with a pretty novel sound adding a flair of uniqueness to the track, but the twinkling sound effects and Smith’s rapid-fire delivery are what makes sticking around worth it. The little production details make a world of difference, especially when violins briefly swell up as Smith somewhat hilariously sings about their life suddenly being soundtracked by the most dramatic of instruments at a moment’s notice. “Dance (‘Til You Love Someone Else)” is the most outright club-ready track here, accompanied by a thumping bass groove, shuffling mid-2000s percussion and claps. It’s one of the more dated-sounding instrumentals here, but interestingly enough, it all becomes something refreshing when you add Smith’s trademark falsetto wail on top. Singing explicitly about dancing to forget their troubles and reaching up to some of the most impressive notes on the album, Smith fully embraces the simultaneously upbeat and dark vibes of the track and accentuates the rhythms with some more of those lyrical gut punches. The track “For the Lover That I Lost” is actually Smith’s own version of a song they co-wrote for the legendary Celine Dion last year, and they absolutely smash the centerpiece piano ballad. You can’t get much more Smithian than comparing the end of a relationship to a literal death, and as Smith tearfully sings about laying down the roses set to piano and strings, it’s hard to imagine even the most hardened listener not feeling a little lump in their throat.
The project comes with two feature appearances, the completely unexpected one ultimately winning out over the predictable. None other than the African Giant himself Burna Boy appears on the track “My Oasis,” and hearing Smith’s falsetto juxtaposed with his husky bass voice is incredibly effective. The watery synths and heavy percussion drawing a bit of influence from Burna’s Afrobeats style create an immersive instrumental world, the two emotional singers harmonizing as they are each entranced by another’s idealistic image, only for it to end up as a mirage. Title track “Love Goes” comes with an appearance from fellow British balladeer Labrinth, a track where Smith was clearly aiming to be experimental but ultimately comes across as extremely strange with some abrupt shifts. Beginning with a lengthy piano intro that falls into a looped segment, the track doesn’t pick up much energy as the two singers replicate its melody for a while before the sudden blast of a regal horn section and a final orchestral piece represent rather baffling changes. The title track is accompanied at the album’s end by “Forgive Myself,” another ballad that gets a little lost in the shuffle but carries a strong message nonetheless as Smith learns to stop getting lost in memories and work on themselves before getting caught up in another whirlwind romance, and closing track “Kids Again.” The track ends things on another bittersweet moment as Smith looks back on a glorious and youthful relationship to the tune of a great slow build. As the instrumentation fills out, the emotion behind Smith’s words only becomes more powerful.
Although the tracks where Smith adheres to their more well-known style are consistently some of the best work here, their willingness to jump into something new and pull it off pretty well makes for an enjoyable album in two different ways. One can only hope that tracks like “Diamonds” send them shooting back to the top of the charts.
Favourite Tracks: Young, For The Lover That I Lost, So Serious, Kids Again, Diamonds
Least Favourite Track: Breaking Hearts