[20 June 2014]
In a musical climate devoured by EDM and inundated with Auto-tuned vocalists of the “pour from a can and serve” variety, London-based singer-songwriter Sam Smith is a welcome reminder that natural talent can still flourish in mainstream music. He may not possess a remarkably distinguished name, but there is nothing ordinary about that voice. With an image that conjures up the spirit of a young Boy George, sans cosmetics, his physical presence on stage is as charmingly likable, as his vocal delivery is impressive. There’s also something refreshingly honest and vulnerable about both his image and his artistry. For once the hype is entirely justified, and if his debut album is any indication, the success he has experienced in the UK will easily be replicated stateside.
Vocal pyrotechnics could rend apart any of these ten songs, but Smith possesses a startling maturity for his 22 years, and on In the Lonely Hour, he wisely keeps the histrionics at bay. This collection of blue-eyed, R&B-fused soul-pop becomes all the more poignant given Smith’s recent revelations about his sexuality, but ultimately, the record could have benefitted from a bit more variation in tempo and mood. These tales of unrequited love are at their finest when they are stripped to the barest of instrumentation.
Critical and commercial acclaim seem to follow in his wake. Smith recently won the BBC Sound of 2014 poll, was the recipient of the BRIT 2014 Critics’ Choice Award, and has also amassed three number one UK singles since he first appeared on Disclosure’s breakthrough single “Latch”. Here the song has been included as a bonus track on the deluxe edition, and his voice is accompanied by nothing but piano and cello. Songs such as “Good Thing” would have thrived if they had been stripped of their flamboyant string arrangements. Uncluttered with any excessive production work, “Latch” and a handful of the album’s tracks, have an emotional impact that resonates in a way not unlike the work of a young Roberta Flack. Sometimes the simplest approach is the most effective one.
Opener “Money on My Mind” is a fantastic single in its own right, but here it seems forcefully tacked onto the rest of the collection. The song aligns itself with the vibe of Smith’s previous work on Naughty Boy’s harp-laden “La La La” and Disclosure’s electro-house collaborations. With the jarring orchestral introduction of “Good Thing” biting at the song’s heels, Smith and his technical crew seem to be uncertain as to what mood they want to settle upon. Strangely enough, last year’s terrific track “Nirvana” was omitted from the collection. It would have been a logical stop-gap between the first two songs on the record. Without anything to cushion their stylistic differences, the album begins on a tentative note.
In The Lonely Hour hits its stride once the gospel choir-inflected “Stay With Me” appears. While the song is conspicuously reminiscent of something Emeli Sandé would have concocted, there is an immediacy to the arrangement that elevates this above mere stylistic plagiarism. The track is followed by one of the highlights of the entire record, “Leave Your Lover”. Acoustic guitar, piano and a tasteful string quartet enrobe Smith’s intimate delivery as he sings, “We sit in bars and raise our drinks to growing old / Oh, I’m in love with you and you will never know… set my midnight sorrow free, I will give you all of me.” It is in both the melody and the performance here that Smith’s future seems firmly cemented in the music business. How could it not be with songs this accessibly lovely?
While the album is heavy on despondent ballads, there are moments of relief amidst the gloom. Despite the dour lyricism, the charming “I’m Not the Only One” confidently struts out from the rest of the set. An obvious candidate for future single, it’s the type of track that elicits head bobbing and finger snapping the second it begins. “I’ve Told You Now” recalls the soulful acoustic songs of Indie.Arie. Smith’s voice perfectly mirrors the frustration of the lyrics, alternating between a floating falsetto and a raspy, empowered wail. “Like I Can” begins with the sound of tensely strummed guitars, evoking Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”. The similarity isn’t particularly shocking, knowing that her production and co-writing team assisted Smith on “Good Thing” and “Not in That Way”. Here, her essence pervades the atmosphere of the song until that vibrant chorus erupts, dispelling any comparison.
“Life Support” sounds like a collaboration between Frank Ocean, Prince and Timbaland. While it’s undeniably catchy, it disrupts the flow of the album with its decidedly modernistic ambience. The album concludes with the quietly intimate “Not in That Way” and the gorgeous “Lay Me Down”. The latter could have done without the sweeping strings, but they are inoffensively nestled within the background of the track, so they never truly overwhelm Smith’s delivery. The paint-by-numbers, ‘80s nostalgia of “Restart” might have seemed a tolerable choice for a b-side on a single, but its inclusion here is puzzling. If Luther Vandross and Chromeo had been able to jam together, this might have been the result. As a bonus track it is at odds with the rest of what Smith is offering on the album.
Those who expected Sam Smith’s debut to be some revelatory pop masterpiece, might leave both the record and its deluxe version wanting more. That doesn’t mean In the Lonely Hour contains little worth investigating, as there are some brilliantly crafted songs within the collection. Like so many albums released these days, it could have been an infinitely glossier, overproduced mess. It never is. In the end, the quiet moments of the album prove to be the most captivating. Regardless of the setting, his voice is a revelation to behold. Where Smith will follow his muse next is anyone’s guess, but for now, his talent is a clear force to be reckoned with and his debut is ripe with promise.