New Music Reviews

Sam Smith’s Unholy: The 2023 Version of Bringing Sexy Back

The end of year lists are done features on Black History Month, Rihanna and the Super Bowl halftime show are all in the books, which means it is time to return to new music reviews. The first one for 2023 is a bit of a surprise, because it is from an artist I have not really connected with in the past. Over the last few decades it is customary for an artist, usually fresh off of leaving a boy band, to come out with a sexualised track to kick off their solo career. Think of it as a way to announce that they are not that kiddie version anymore…they are all growed up. JT did this with the fire track Sexy Back and Take That fans will remember Robbie Williams’ Rudebox, which is remarkably similar to JT.

Sam Smith follows this tradition with their surprisingly sexy Unholy. They team up with Kim Petras, who also is also the first openly trans pop star to win a grammy, to create their own Sexy Back. This track follows JT’s formula to the letter. Smith is known for their amazing vocal range, which they turn on its head with this track. Much like Sexy Back this is a fairly stripped back track dominated by deep and dirty bass. Finally, like JT, Smith goes beyond a sexy song to “unholy,” which conjures images of latex and S&M…much like “I’ll let you whip me up if I misbehave” from JT.

Ok. Sam Smith is following a very successful formula for a pop sex track, but why does it work so well? I mean, Sexy Back was released in 2006…why does Smith’s track sound intoxicating and not dated? Let’s start with the first five seconds of the song. Unholy kicks off with this angelic choir singing about doing things that are unholy. This conflict between the ultra formal and conservative choral structure and unholy sex is immediately compelling. Moreover, Smith’s vocal has such an angelic quality to it you feel like you are listening to someone’s confession. I love the drama behind his vocal, which really lifts the track. Moreover, the contrast between Smith’s fine tuned vocal and the dirty electro filth surrounding the chorus is a unique sonic experience.

Now, for the elephant in the dirty and red neon filled room, this track’s hook is genius. Not only that, but Smith executes this hook to perfection. Their vocal with the choral backing is the height of drama, while leaving what is happening to simply “something unholy” is mysterious enough to draw you in. This is a fantastic pop hook that Smith uses like the Pied Piper to lead the audience wherever they want. By this point I am completely in their power and the track simply owns me.

There is something to be said about a perfectly executed hook. Smith’s hook in Unholy burrows into your head and has you keep coming back from more. Their rendition of this track at the Grammys with the red latex and devil top hat was a highlight of the show. I love how Smith is really going for it in this track and not holding back. Even though Unholy is a fun pop track, it is just that little bit dangerous…like you turn the volume down a little bit when someone walks into the room…which makes it so damn good to listen to.

Listen to Unholy

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