“Put your hands in the air if you sometimes ever get sad like me,” Sam Smith urges in “So Serious,” one of the triumphantly forlorn songs on their third studio album, “Love Goes.” (Smith’s preferred pronouns are they/their.) Romance is all that matters in Smith’s musical universe. Love is all-important and all-consuming, even — perhaps especially — when it’s going wrong. Obsession prevails, even more than passion.
Smith’s voice is a prodigious instrument: a pearly, androgynous croon, at once powerful and defenseless. On “Love Goes” it’s deployed, as usual, to reflect on loneliness, longing and regret. Yet more than ever, Smith’s music is aware that even as the songs explore being alone, a mass audience is listening. The sound of “Love Goes” is sweeping and luxurious: intimacy blown up to cinematic scale. Each song feels elaborately hewed.
On “Love Goes,” Smith collaborated with their frequent songwriting partner James Napier; with Scandinavian pop experts like Stargate, Shellback and Linus Wiklund; and with Guy Lawrence from the dance-music duo Disclosure (who featured Smith on early singles). They built neatly structured, immediately legible pop tracks that open up arena-sized reverberations and sometimes beckon toward the dance floor.
Many of Smith’s new songs also stir in a strong new emotion: the resentment of a lover betrayed. The bile and the beat cut through the self-pity, though it wouldn’t be a Sam Smith album without a good wallow or five.
“Breaking Hearts” is one of them. A Sam Cooke-tinged soul hymn written with Napier, it mourns through its recriminations. “You got caught,” Smith sings with equal parts accusation and melancholy, on the way to a chorus — “While you were busy breaking hearts/I was busy breaking — that allows itself some fingersnaps but can’t push away its sorrows. In “Another One,” Smith sings to an ex with honeyed sarcasm (“Oh congratulations, you found the one”) and sounds relieved that “I dodged a bullet”; soon, as a four-on-the-floor thump materializes, Smith tells the ex how much better he should have behaved.
“Diamonds” directly indicts an ex whose intentions turned out to be purely materialistic. “Now I know just what you love me for,” Smith sings, taunting, “Show me how little you care.” The beat places the song in the lineage of angry disco kiss-offs like Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” yet there’s also an ache in Smith’s voice, admitting to some self-deception: “Think I always knew,” Smith admits. “Dance (’Til You Love Someone Else)” mixes vintage electro and disco — even a string section — with 21st-century vocal manipulations, as Smith determinedly seeks a rebound: “Someone get me over it,” they beg.
The album’s title song, “Love Goes,” is a pre-emptive strike, a breakup before things get too serious. Like many of Smith’s songs, it begins with a lone keyboard playing simple patterns; the production makes clear that it’s a loop, not a person. “You’re broken, we know that,” the singer realizes. “And if you knew it you won’t fight me when I say farewell.” It’s all just a handful of instruments and an intimate vocal until, suddenly, it’s not: enter a brass ensemble, wide-open voices, massed strings. The personal interaction suddenly becomes a public display, with the power of pop.