Available on: Capitol
The opening words of Sam Smith’s debut album are “When I signed my deal, I felt pressure”, which is a brave move. By directly addressing the hype that he’s been surrounded by ever since appearing on Disclosure’s 2012 chart hit ‘Latch’ and the high stakes of his major label deal, he shoots for honesty and point-scoring self-awareness by staring straight into the many critical eyes that are focused on his next step. The first time I heard him sing these words, he had been brought out onstage with Taylor Swift for the London leg of her Red tour to belt his anti-money, anti-fame values centre stage at the gigantic O2 arena. It was somehow both subversive and totally sincere, but the potential for accusations of hypocrisy loomed larger than the screens showing Smith’s face.
To come through on such a brave premise, In The Lonely Hour should have been a blinder of a pop album from an artist with a vision so strong he dispelled all doubts that he was doing anything “for the money”. Having won both the BBC Sound of 2014 poll and then the Critics’ Choice award at the 2014 Brits earlier this year, the expectations and reputations riding on Smith’s debut were immense. Unfortunately, the bold opening line turns out to be a misfire; at the front of an album like In The Lonely Hour, citing the “pressure” of having a deal simply feels like an apology for what’s to follow.
There’s no question that this album is one filled with love, nor that Smith has buckets of vocal talent. On ‘Good Thing’ his voice is soft and malleable as he laments having to cut people who don’t treat him right out of his life, building around the catchy aphorism “too much of a good thing / won’t be good for long”. ‘Stay With Me’ blasts off with an ambitious gospel chorus, showing off both Smith’s huge pipes and his open-hearted lyricism. Mostly, he walks the right line between soulfulness and hackneyed sentiment; despite his tendency to belt lyrics that sound like they were made to be Instagrammed, his delivery is consistently sensitive. Watching him live, it’s obvious why so many fell over themselves to give him awards ahead of his first release.
Still, something doesn’t translate. The lack of emotional range is grating by the time you get halfway into the record. On ‘Leave Your Lover’, the album’s fourth track, the sentiment of the opener is already being repeated (“what use is money / when you need someone to hold?”). ‘I’ve Told You Now’, ‘Leave Your Lover’, ‘Like I Can’, ‘Life Support’, ‘Not In That Way’ and ‘I’m Not The Only One’ all dwell on unrequited love and rejection in terms so similar it’s difficult to remember which lyric comes from which track. All of this wouldn’t be such a bad thing if there was a enough diversity in sound to keep things moving, but despite some moments that are more lush (‘Good Thing’) or more stripped-back (‘Leave Your Lover’, ‘I’ve Told You Now’) than others, the album rarely venturing away from from arrangements as tried and tested as your mum’s record collection.
Throughout his sudden rise to prominence, Smith has been frequently compared to another all-black-wearing, ballad-slaying British singer in the form of Adele. Some of his earliest gigs were in support of her, and they share an aesthetic and a global label, but In The Lonely Hour is not 19. Smith isn’t the songwriter that Adele is, and while she caught attention with the character and bite of her 2006 MySpace demos, Smith was singing the hooks on other people’s tracks, winning acclaim for his chart-flying pop performances before he really had a voice of his own.
“When I was 14 or 15, I was promised stardom. It was sad, actually,” Smith recently told The Fader. “[My managers] would literally say, ‘You’re going to be this famous by next year.’ I was thinking, ‘Great, I can leave school at 16.’…It never materialized, and I looked like a complete idiot.” From the outside, he looks like an overnight sensation, but his life has been moving towards fame since a young age – and all that patient work towards stardom feels like it’s tragically compromised his ability to actually write catchy songs about much other than the pressure of having a record deal. As a performer Smith is brave, sincere and hugely talented; he probably has a great album in him, but this isn’t it. In The Lonely Hour is an album made by an artist who spent years waiting to be famous, but when he got there, found that he didn’t actually have that much to say.