opinion byJEAN-LUC MARSH
One thing needs to be made explicitly clear: Sam Smith has the pipes of a god. His falsetto moves with a lithe finesse that belies his mere twenty-two years on this earth. Early collaborations paired his classical sound with deft house beats and contemporary rhythms, as on Disclosure’s “Latch” and Naughty Boy’s “La La La.” Contrary to those cuts, In the Lonely Hour largely eschews such sonic textures, drawing its strength almost exclusively from the sheer brawn of Smith’s voice.
That would be sufficient were it not for the album’s singular, and almost myopic, focus. In an interview with Fader magazine, Smith confessed that the material for In the Lonely Hour was inspired by an unreciprocated love for another man. This pining dominates the majority of the album, which suffers from some of the same one-tone monotony that plagued Lykke Li’s I Never Learn. To make matters worse, several tracks rely too heavily on Smith’s golden vox, paring down the instrumentation to a point where the album comes off as rather bare.
It’s true: In the Lonely Hour is billed as a soul album rather than a dance record, but the heavy radio play it pursues puts it at odds with the current soundscape, and even at an awkward juxtaposition with Smith’s other charting efforts (as anyone who has heard the succession and “Latch” and “Stay With Me” can attest to). There is of course, the album’s one attempt to capture and continue his early legacy: the relatively hyperactive “Money On My Mind” with its helium falsetto and stuttering pulses, which at least tries, despite lacking the sincere brio that endeared Smith in the first place. The rest of the album inhabits a space indebted to the niche carved out by Winehouse and company, with special mention going to Adele. Indeed, his comparison to the latter is especially apt, as both 21 and In the Lonely Hour were born from heartbreak and propelled to the stratosphere by impressive vocal heroics. And in both cases, the album’s focus is on the artist rather than the artistry. The remainder of In the Lonely Hour is a battery of soul-inspired ballads (with the notable exception of the grating and hackneyed “Life Support”), and a mixed bag in terms of sonic success. Half of the songs soar (“Stay With Me,” “I’m Not the Only One,” “Like I Can,” Not In That Way,” “Lay Me Down”), while others fall flat, too redundant and indistinguishable to merit a second listen (“Good Thing,” “Leave Your Lover,” “I’ve Told You Now”).
In general, the dividing line between the two classes of songs resides within the rhythm. The latter, lackluster group rarely adds more beyond a guitar and basic percussion. Smith’s performance is a knockout throughout, meaning that despite the adequate efforts on these tracks, they pale in comparison to the other songs, which possess the combination of strong vocals and an iota of rhythmic intrigue. “Stay With Me,” “I’m Not the Only One,” and “Lay Me Down” all make use of gospel structures, lending them extra punch and panache. “Like I Can” is almost an analog to “Rolling In the Deep,” possessing a similar introduction and a familiar locomotive-like cadence. “Not In That Way” is the exception to this rule, but scores points out of its pure earnestness.
However, nothing on In the Lonely Hour approaches anything close to the caliber of “Latch,” refusing to innovate when the path and proof is blatantly evident. Smith’s debut is not revolutionary. Rather, it is polished for battle against the sound of 2011, dwelling as much on that past as on his romantic failings, woefully unequipped for a world that has moved on, partially with his help, from the mid-tempo ballad. It is an about-face for an artist who built his name on the back of a forward-thinking musical trend, and an oddly timed album at that, more suited to the melancholy of a February morning than the heat and hope of early summer.
However, what casts the largest shadow on In the Lonely Hour is a sense of missed opportunity. In the same interview, Smith states, “I've made my music so that it could be about anything and everybody–whether it's a guy, a female or a goat.” He retreats to the realm of ambiguity in order to sell more records, and it works; In the Lonely Hour is a bona-fide smash. Yet for an album about a man by a man, it lacks the radical spark that it could have been endowed with given a well-timed pronoun or two. Instead, Smith plays it safe, joining the growing crop of British talent with big voices and little personalities. At least he sounds pleasant though. C-
originally posted june 3, 2014