Last year, while most of us in the U.S. were oblivious, an up and coming singer named Sam Smith was breaking through in a big way in the UK, as a guest vocalist on Naughty Boy’s “La La La”, and also on Disclosure’s “Latch”. It wasn’t until I watched the last BRITs awards that I first heard these songs, and also Sam Smith’s solo song “Lay Me Down”. I was absolutely blown away by this guy’s voice! Half a year later, the U.S. finally caught on. First, “Latch” and “La La La” both became big hits here. Then Sam’s single “Stay With Me” was finally the one to click with American listeners. Overnight he went from “Who?” to “He’s the new Adele!”. Well, Adele is still the new Adele. But this guy is one of the most soulful white guys I’ve heard in some time. So finally his first full length album In The Lonely Hour came out this year – a collection of songs about unrequited love and heartache.
The album starts with the almost jungle drums and bass sound of “Money On My Mind” where Sam goes right into his dazzling falsetto. Right off the bat, this is a new sound. Right now US radio is littered with copycat EDM-pop production that offers very little by way of new ideas. This sound, produced by Two Inch Punch is instead rooted in real soul music. “Good Thing” is a ballad about wanting someone to love him more than they actually do. A ballad that starts “I had a dream I was mugged outside your house”, where he wants a knight in shining amour to come to his rescue. It’s refreshing to see a gay man a great voice be appreciated for his voice and not have to hide who his songs are about, as he’s been clear in interviews that these songs are about ex-boyfriends. However he still maintains he wants to write songs so that anyone can feel the words as their own. He’s really good at this in the way he chooses his words. “Stay With Me” follows, the first monster hit with its goosebump-inducing choir element that compliments Sam perfectly. It’s strange that such a sad song can be so uplifting.
Next things get even more personal with “Leave Your Lover”. Sadly, this song was skipped in the states. A video that twists on your expectations of the meaning of the lyrics made for great accompaniment. But here Sam wants the one he can’t have. Rounding out the first half is the swaying “I”m Not The Only One”, a song about infidelity and crumbling trust. This has become one of my favorites, and it’s nice to see this one got some real radio play. The simple groove with its piano and strings that are just right really do this song justice.
The second half starts quietly with “I’ve Told You Now”, an acoustic-based ballad which seems to be about not telling someone close to him how he actually feels about…something – maybe disappointment in that person?. This is one where the lyrics are vague enough to fit a lot of things, but it’s obvious from the vocal performance that these lyrics mean something personal to Sam. “Like I Can” gets a bit more upbeat, as Sam tries to win someone’s love away from somebody else. This one is a happier reprieve, and also has some nice choir vocals gracing it.
“Life Support” is another song about pining after someone who is able to make him feel complete, perhaps with the other person not realizing. Nice falsetto on this one. Next is possibly the saddest song on the album, the tearjerker “Not In That Way” where it’s pretty obvious the obvious that the object of Sam’s affection doesn’t play for the same team. This is the type of song that could end up almost hokey, except for that Sam is so open and honest in this song and it tugs at the heartstrings. Finishing off the proper album is the early single “Lay Me Down”, a simple romantic love song that shows off Sam’s amazing vocal range. It’s disappointing that this song missed the boat in the states, as it is one of his most impressive.
So then we get to the extra half an album on the deluxe editions. “Restart” is quite a bit different from the album and brings in sounds from a time frame between disco and early 80s soul grooves. It was produced by Zane Lowe, as to where most of the proper album was produced by Jimmy Napes, EG White and Two Inch Punch. This has one of the best grooves of the whole collection. Next we get a slowed down piano and voice version of “Latch”, which takes on a different mood performed this way. It also gives the song some room to sprawl out and breathe. Following that is “La La La”, in its original hit version as heard on the Naughty Boy Hotel Cabana album. This song deserves to be here, as it was the first thing that hooked many of us on the beauty of Sam Smith’s voice. This for me was one of the three or four songs that defined the year for me. It’s just such a different sound and it scratched a musical itch that nothing else satisfied.
Then we get to the Target edition bonus tracks. “Reminds Me of You” is a song about wanting to get out of the place he is, being fueled by not finding love. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard any of my single friends talk this way. The track is really good, but compared to the stellar tracks on the proper album, it does fall into second-rate material. The production is closer to standard pop and not to the soulful production of the other songs. Next we have another version of “Stay With Me” featuring Mary J. Blige duetting and taking some of the parts herself. Now I love Mary J. Blige. She’s one of a kind. But this track falls flat by comparison to the original mix, only because the original is so exceptional. Making the song a duet doesn’t really fit the lyrics the same way it does to have Sam Smith sing them in his own pained voice. But it’s definitely a nice “remix” of sorts if you want to look at it that way. The final, final, for real this time last song is a stripped down “acoustic” piano version of “In The Lonely Hour”. It’s weird that it’s labeled “acoustic” when it’s the only version. This is a gentle gorgeous ballad that feels like a true ending point to this album.
I really can’t recommend this album enough. There are a lot of great vocalists out there, but not a lot of true soul artists that we hear in popular music that really bare their souls. Sam Smith gets it. In this case, all of the fame and accolades he receives are truly deserved. The sound coming from him and fellow producers and artists in the UK like Disclosure, Naughty Boy, Emile Sande, and basically everyone that Mary J. Blige was smart enough to work with on her recent The London Sessions album – it’s changing the sound of pop music. And I think that’s something many of us are hungry for. Also I’m impressed that American listeners specifically are embracing a gay male pop singer that isn’t hiding who he is. The world is actually changing in small steps. In the meantime, I just hope Sam finds someone to love. He will. He’s young. In the meantime, he’s creating beauty out of his heartache.
Pick up your copy HERE:
Check out the many great videos from this album:
“Like I Can”
“I”m Not The Only One”
“Leave Your Lover”
“Stay With Me”
“Money On My Mind”
“Lay Me Down” (Live at the Apollo)