In The Lonely Hour

Sam Smith

Capitol, 2014

http://samsmithworld.com

REVIEW BY: Melanie Love

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/06/2014

I was positively effusive in my praise of 22-year-old British wunderkind Sam Smith and his debut EP, Nirvana. While Smith is being touted as the male counterpart to Adele due to his raw, lovelorn songs and his ability to light up the charts, I swear I can hear echoes of young Freddie Mercury in the maturity and clarity of his range (who undoubtedly would’ve appreciated the precocious Brit). So of course, I was all ears for Smith’s first full-length, released on May 26th.

How does it stack up to all the hype? Well, I’ve been spinning this disc for the past couple of weeks and I’m left conflicted. Smith emerges as an undeniable vocal talent and a strong songwriter, able to give voice to the loneliness and longing of unrequited love with a graceful simplicity. All good stuff – so why the conflict?

The problem here lies in the production, which either does too little or too much to lend support to Smith. While dynamic opener “Money On My Mind” (lifted from his EP) is fleshed out with skittering drums and an R&B flavor that complements Smith’s falsetto, this earworm of a song is immediately followed by “Good Thing,” which can only be described as Barry Manilow-esque in its instrumentation. The strings and keys blend together in a placid, non-obtrusive fashion that doesn’t add any depth or oomph to Smith’s shapeshifting vocals. Meanwhile, the vulnerability of a track like “Leave Your Lover” needs a less safe accompaniment than a downbeat piano and synth combo.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

This sense of needing more impactful and well-chosen production can be most felt on “I’ve Told You Now,” which appears in a live form on the Nirvana EP. Live, the song needs little more than Smith’s gorgeous, lilting vocals, allowed the space to unfold over a backdrop of acoustic guitar and light strings. It’s tender, raw and expressive. But the album version finds the song sped up, padded with strings, jazzy piano and harmonies that threaten to engulf the purity of his voice.

Still, this is not to say that In The Lonely Hour is not without its standout moments. Smith is clearly on his way to becoming an impressive chart-topping talent, particularly when paired with the right people (it’s no coincidence that his dominating appearances on Disclosure’s “Latch” and Naughty Boy’s “La La La” earned him his first Billboard singles and a UK #1).

Third single “Stay With Me” is utterly lovely, accented by just the right amount of harmonies as Smith pleads to a one-night stand, “Oh, won’t you stay with me? / ‘Cause you’re all I need / This ain’t love it’s clear to see / But darling, stay with me.” Smith being influenced by Whitney Houston can be felt here (check out his incredible cover of “How Will I Know”). Meanwhile, parts of this disc remind me of George Michael, who’s similarly gifted with a pop sensibility and an impressive vocal range.

Other standouts include the glitchy, ethereal tone of “Life Support” and “Like I Can,” one of the more aggressive, energetic cuts here with its slow-building guitar as Smith implores to his would-be lover, “Why are you looking down all the wrong roads / When mine is the heart and the salt of the soul?”

Altogether, In The Lonely Hour may have its flaws, but it soars on the strength of Sam Smith’s considerable gifts. As a young artist on a major label debut, it does make me wonder how much of a voice he had in some of the production, and it will be fascinating to see where his style shifts on subsequent releases. Still, if you’ve found yourself impressed by any of Smith’s many singles, this album is worth delving into.

Rating: B+

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