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Jorja Smith’s ‘Falling or Flying’ Gives Polished Voice to Messy Emotions

Although Smith established herself as a ballad singer with songs like “Addicted” from her 2021 EP, “Be Right Back,” she has always been canny about rhythm. With “Falling or Flying,” she raises the tension in her songs by pushing the beat upfront, sometimes shifting it into double time. Smith isn’t joining the disco and house revival. On the contrary: She and her producers — especially Damedame, the partnership of Edith Nelson and Barbara Boko-Hyouyhat — come up with un-nostalgic beats. And while the tracks can be sleek, they strive to make Smith sound exposed, not glossy.

Throughout the album, the insistent physicality of rhythm hints at the jitters that someone hides while putting on a brave face. “Try Me” opens the album with a Bo Diddley beat laced at first with finger-cymbal pings and later with a pistol-cocking sound, as Smith confronts naysayers and past wounds. “I don’t have to tell you what I’ve changed,” she sings.

The songs on “Falling or Flying” are about primal needs: for love, for sex, for comfort, for understanding, for independence. As the rhythms push forward, Smith’s voice ponders and hesitates, working through doubts and then taking chances, physical and emotional.

In “Little Things,” a hopping bass line and brisk Latin percussion drive a bold come-on — “Won’t you come with me and spend the night?” — while dissonant, syncopated piano chords hint at suppressed misgivings. The title song, “Falling or Flying,” is even more ambivalent about a new infatuation; with percussion and rhythm guitar ricocheting left and right, Smith urges, “Show me you want me.” Then she wonders, “Who else could get me to fall from these heights?”

Most of the album is filled with goodbyes, not connections. “Go Go Go,” with a syncopated guitar backbeat and slamming drums harking back to the Police, summarily jettisons a lover who wouldn’t keep things to himself. In “Broken Is the Man,” Smith looks back on a relationship she now realizes was toxic: “Can you believe I put myself through that all/Just to realize you mean nothing to me,” she sings, over a slow, thudding beat; she won’t let it drag her down.

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