Sam Smith ‘In the Lonely Hour’ – Review

22 Jun

You’ll recognise Sam Smith’s voice before you recognise his name. His vocals were featured on two of the biggest hits of last year, Disclosure’s ‘Latch’ and Naughty Boy’s ‘LA LA LA’ and he’s already had 2 numbers ones of his own (‘Money on my Mind’ and ‘Stay With Me’). Add to that his impressive Stateside success (2 top 20 singles, 1 top 10 single and an SNL performance) and you’ve got enough evidence to justify the slightly ridiculous ‘male Adele’ tag. And as reductive as that tag is, he IS kind of a male Adele; an old fashioned singer-songwriter who places massive emphasis on that stunning voice, and accompanies it with simple and subtle musical arrangements.

Smith has never been in a relationship, so he wanted to write an album for all the unrequited lovers out there. It’s a brave mission statement and an interesting proposition for a record that isn’t just another break up album. Smith’s perspective is sad and lonely – he sings of love as seen through the naïve eyes of somebody on the outside looking in. It makes you realise that most pop music is sung from the perspective of good looking, successful, well-adjusted people; Sam Smith isn’t that. Not everyone is fortunate (or should that be unfortunate) enough to have felt the type of heartbreak you’re used to hearing about. Sam Smith allows us the privilege of seeing things from a different and far more vulnerable perspective.

Smith’s voice is a thing of great precision; it rises and falls with absolute grace, it quivers without breaking and it expresses more power than the words could ever hope to express when read on the page. In his hands, an uneventful phrase like ‘I’m in love with you and you’ll never know’ becomes a dangerous weapon capable of melting even the most hardened heart. His voice blows like a breeze through all the cracks and cranny’s that lead to your soul. This has become the fastest selling debut album of the year for a reason and that reason is undeniably this voice.

It’s a bit difficult to describe how or why these songs are so dramatically effective, especially as on the surface they appear completely nondescript. Sam Smith has made an unspectacular, innocuous, middle of the road pop album – at least on the surface. There is nothing here that bites or growls, nothing that builds a tempo and nothing that excites your feet or challenges your brain. So why is it so moving? That is the inexplicable power of music – especially music this universal and passionate. OK the song writing is slightly clichéd, the chord progressions are standard and the arrangements are uninnovative, but that familiarity allows Sam Smith enough comfort to push himself vocally and emotionally – you can tell this is the type of music he loves and feels at home with.

The expanded version of the album features fourteen songs, of which about a quarter somewhat flat (not a bad ratio for such a commercial entity) and they fall flat for fairly boring reasons. He relies on clichés a little too much here, he over-emotes a little too much there, but you’re left thinking about the songs that do make a mark rather than the ones that don’t. The tragic ‘Leave Your Lover’, the heart-breaking ‘Not in that Way’ and the already classic ‘Lay Me Down.’ The best songs are the simplest, the ones with just a guitar or piano and voice. This is a surprising twist in the Same Smith story as the tunes that introduced us to him are some of the busiest, most fizzing and innovative pop songs of recent times. ‘Latch’ and ‘La La La’ turn up as welcome bonus tracks, but of the new songs only the ADHD sounding ‘Restart’ attempts (and fails) to cover the same ground. A missed opportunity? Perhaps, but if you want more songs in that vein you can always stick Disclosure’s ‘Settle’ on. That isn’t what Sam Smith is about. ‘In the Lonely Hour’ is a modest vocal pop album that in no way sounds groundbreaking or contemporary. But at the same time it isn’t bound to the conventions and trends of 2014; It’s timeless.



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