Sam Smith has a tender voice, and while domestic audiences are just now getting familiar with him, his guest appearances on Disclosure’s hit “Latch” in 2012, as well as UK star Naughty Boy’s “La La La” last year, have positioned him to be next big thing out of the UK music scene. And because homosexuality is still somehow a taboo subject, his profile may have also been raised, too, by publicly admitting in a Fader cover story that his first LP, In the Lonely Hour, is inspired by a romance with another man. That notwithstanding, his debut proves that Smith is extremely talented and who he is lusting after—man or woman—is largely irrelevant.
One of Smith’s biggest selling points is, again, his voice. While critics often compare him to Adele, In the Lonely Hour sounds substantially more raw than anything she’s ever done. That isn’t to say Smith is a better singer, but on this LP his vocals are out in front of the mix, occasionally drenched in cathedral-like reverbs and delays, which gives the LP a dated sound. The arrangements are lush and expansive—“Good Thing” and “I’m Not the Only One,” are notably highlights—but the songs are brought to life by Smith’s clever vocal arpeggiations and phrasings. There’s a soulfulness to him that not everyone has. Peep his breathy falsetto on “Life Support”—that’s a metaphor for his partner—where you can almost visualize him in the recording booth, eyes closed, belting out notes. It’s quite thrilling.
In the Lonely Hour also has brevity on its side. These days, artists often overthink, oversing and overproduce their records; incidentally, songs sound like they’ll never end. But much like the AM radio-era classic soul that they aspire to mimic, Smith’s songs are short and to the point. A song like “Stay With Me”—with its gospel-inspired chord progression and goose-bump-inducing choir-sung backgrounds—clocks in at just under three minutes. So does “Not In That Way,” which finds Smith singing to a spare guitar about unrequited love, and “Like I Can,” an adrenaline-charged number where he shoots down his competition (“He’ll never love you like I can, can, can”). These are compact little numbers that squeeze together so many interesting compositional phrases—choruses, b-sections, bridges, etc.—that you’d be remiss not to pay attention. There are no dull moments here, only highlights.
Smith is only 22 years old, and In the Lonely Hour is just his debut LP, but there’s maturity in the music—the songwriting, the production and most importantly, the voice—that is wise beyond its years. It feels like something you’ve heard before, but perhaps not quite in a while, and not quite this good. Occasionally, Smith falls back on clichés—the LP’s first single, “Money In My Mind,” sounds derivative, at least vocally—but there’s enough originality here to to make him more than just another posturing blue-eyed soul singer. And overall the LP is largely somber and reflective. It’s obvious that it’s about someone who hurt Smith deeply. It’s his loss but, thankfully, our gain, because In the Lonely Hour is one extremely good album, and will probably be topping year-end lists come December. —Paul Cantor