Straight away, British crooner Sam Smith concedes, “When I go home, I tend to close the door.” And that’s in the opening track, Money On My Mind, the most ostensibly danceable track on this debut album, and already a hit in Smith’s homeland. Its shifty beat, plasti-synth fingersnaps, and high-pitched chorus singalong hook are fixed into chart aim. But in fact, the chorus is actually, “I have no money on my mind, just love.” Indeed. This debut quickly gets home from the club, shuts the door, and gets to wooing or weeping, depending. Mostly weeping.
In Good Thing, Smith tells of “a dream I was mugged outside your house,” and continues with more insecurities about the lady who was supposed to save him. It’s just minimal piano and guitar, subtle thud tempo, and that voice—another one of those shockingly soulful British blue-eyed dreams that comes along every couple of years and makes you wonder why a quintessentially American vocal habit seems to have been dropped over here. The song itself, like a few others here, keeps teasing to kick into a ubiquitous dance thing, but stays back, quiet, rueful, and—for all the production bluster and vocal trill acrobatics associated with what’s now considered “soulful”—welcome.
Strings sections swoop in for fleeting moments and add a kind of vintage suave. Though Smith’s “vintage” also digs into decades other than the ’60s. The clarity of production on In The Lonely Hour is in that tradition of yearning pop-soul of the late-80s like Simply Red’s Mick Hucknell or George Michael. And like those, Smith will no doubt face some scrutiny on these shores that should melt quickly given his unassailable talent in the vocal interpretation department. He harbors a deeply emotional voice, and that can still trump our supposed sophistication and chill our bones when least expected. To his impressively subtle, wide-range, classic crooner sway, Smith adds quick little pinches at the end of phrases that not only match those succinct string parts for heart-tugging, but are a fine corollary to our modern sensibility that seems suspicious of unfettered emotion played clear and true. And so Smith pulls back right at the precipice, like the crying happens right after he’s done singing.
It’s apparent Smith’s preferred mode is sensitive sigh-maker, and the world can always use a good one of those. But at times, one wonders if there’s a more gruff howler down in him. That may yet come. The single, Stay With Me, is a marvel of sonic restraint, with a smooth hook and gospel-like backups raising it to anthem status while never resorting to histrionics. But Smith’s aw shucks tone barely conceals the same attitude of the Faces’ bawdy classic of the same name. To wit, “Guess it’s true I’m not good at a one night stand./But I still need love cause I’m just a man/Deep down I know this’ll never work/But you can lay with me so it doesn’t hurt/This ain’t love, it’s clear to see/but darling stay with me.” But then he also asks, “Why am I so emotional?/No it’s not a good look.” Well, it is for now.
The Al Green vibe of I’m Not The Only One has a verging-on-stern sentiment couched in a deeper groove that seems like a good direction Smith could head in, and probably will after a few more conniving exes. Lay Me Down builds up a tricky rhythm bridge featuring deeper backup vocals and staccato strings, another move Smith could explore going forward. In Not In That Way, Smith’s command of his delicate, withering style is on full display, with the acoustic guitar sounding like an apology, as if it walked in on Smith having “the talk” with his flame. Like I Can has some fun comparisons to other men who might do all sorts of fantastical things, but simply “won’t love you like I can.” These kind of sentiments grow a little tired though, as they are the one and only topic covered on this album. Tossing in occasional “fuck The Man” forays seems to be another casualty of the modern R&B crooning game.
I’ve Told You Now and Life Support sprinkle in light, jittery glitchisms, plinky piano and a touch too much echo on the chorus vocals that all make for something that begs for use in the season-ending closing scene of a network TV drama—and as we know by now, that’s not a good thing. There’s a conundrum here: when Smith gets a little feistier (his last resort), the songs feel more ambitious; but it’s the more minimal, quiet ones that hit home emotionally. The mark of a classic talent is an ability to span those poles and get the feeling across in any setting, and Smith isn’t exactly there yet. He seems to recognize this within those end-of-phrase dips and by keeping most tunes around three minutes, both smart tactics for a young man who has the chops to grope towards the greats.