At this point any person with even a basic knowledge of current pop music knows who Sam Smith is. In 2013 he was responsible (or at least partly responsible) for two of the year’s best singles with Disclosure’s “Latch” and Naughty Boy’s “La La La” (both of which are currently making waves on the Billboard Hot 100). It was that exposure, along with the occasional peppering of tracks made public, that increased the British soul singer’s profile to the point of being one of the artists to look out for in 2014. His debut, In the Lonely Hour, has a lot of promises to keep — but more owing to the singer’s own potential rather than an audience expectation.
Opening with “Money On My Mind” with its pulsing rhythm and Smith’s high-pitched but fitting vocals it’s one of the tracks that first got him noticed and for a while it seems like the best stuff is about to keep coming. Things continue strong as “Stay with Me and “I’m Not the Only One” are backed with gusto by a Gospel choir accenting Smith’s heavenly pipes delivering music so uplifting in the wee small hours. However after about half of the record the engine starts to lose some of its gusto which is a disappointment no less.
What hurts In the Lonely Hour, when it isn’t being perfect, is inconsistency; it’s obvious on many of the latter tracks that the songwriting chops don’t cut it — often going for the voice rather than the composition. If it’s not the various styles that don’t feel in place it’s the themes and proper takes on emotional distress that this album shows early on. Love and wanting to be in love in music has always been about heartache but compared to say an album like Adele’s 21 there is no proper balance here in the emotional department.
Every song is rejection and disappointment. A track like “I’ve Told You Now” speaks with mundane interest in wasting time on looking for someone’s affection and musically it’s a generic shuffle of R&B tropes. Both “Leave Your Lover” and “Life Support” try to have the fire of rejection that Smith wants to convey but it’s more a display of his signature falsetto which considering the subject is probably all wrong for these tracks.
Album closer “Lay Me Down” sweeps with strings and from-the-heart vocals that bring this album back around to Smith’s soulful chops that caught the attention of acts like Disclosure and Naughty Boy in the first place but this is a prime example of where the album should have succeeded throughout instead of appeasing the masses of a current disjointed music market. It’s an ambiguous excursion into everyman music by a man who has sold how every man he is but with the spirit and voice of a soul God. Smith recently confessed that this album was written in the aftermath of a love that was never returned by another man which personalizes it much deeper than being for anyone as he also stated recently.
From a commercial standpoint In the Lonely Hour is a commercial smash before it even hits the US market (it’s already the Number 1 album in the UK knocking Coldplay off the top of the charts) but there is something here that makes you want something more from an obvious gifted individual rather than wanting more of what is already given. Smith has the momentum to maintain a mass appeal if he plays his cards right but for now his debut is two sided; one of perfectly crafted and genre mixing soul shakers and one of intentional Top 40 bait that could have been great but must settle for second fiddle.
Jason Stives is the Music Editor of Pop-Break as well as the resident Anglophile and Pop-Break representative for BBC America conducting weekly reviews of Doctor Who and Orphan Black. He is currently a contributing writer for PropertyofZack.com and a freelance creative consultant for fundraising and marketing campaigns in New Jersey’s various art communities. He is a graduate of Rutgers University’s class of 2010 with a bachelors in Journalism and Media Studies. When he isn’t attending concerts or writing the great American novel he moonlights as lounge crooner J.M Heavyhart turning the works of Dokken and Dio into Sinatra-esque standards (or at least he would like to be). Follow his constant retweets and occasionally witty banter on Twitter at @jaystives.