Not even Disclosure’s rise to fame as trendsetters for last year’s U.K. garage revival could overshadow Sam Smith, who lent soulful vocals to the Lawrence brother’s whiplashing hit “Latch.” It was impossible not to notice Smith’s heart-rending range, which seemed to have come out of nowhere (even though the 21-year-old London singer had technically been around since age 12, when he signed a management deal as a preternaturally talented jazz vocalist). Even with his signature unforgettable voice, however, Smith was still trying to figure out his musical identity at that point. As he told Billboard in a recent interview, during the beginning stages of writing his debut LP, “In the Lonely Hour,” he wanted to make a “Rihanna record.”
It’s a good thing he decided not to. Given the success of “Latch” and Smith’s follow-up single, Naughty Boy’s ridiculously catchy 2013 smash “La La La,” he could easily have made a more beat-reliant debut. Instead, “In the Lonely Hour” draws from the same classic soul that spawned albums like Norah Jones’ “Come Away With Me,” a favorite of Smith’s, or Adele’s “19,” which his album is currently on track to outsell in the U.S. its opening week. More importantly, he sounds comfortable with himself. The acoustic “Latch” that appears toward the end of the 14-track effort is no better or worse than the original; these arrangements seem to come more naturally to Smith. A bed of strings and a simple piano chord progression highlight every snag in his voice, the sudden leap into falsetto, a controlled yet tremulous vibrato.
And Smith bares more than his vocal cords on this record. Every story of unrequited love that’s been put to song is powerful in its own right, but Smith’s admission that the object of his affection was a man — besides being a brave thing to do — put to rest any speculation of his sexuality and set an emotionally open tenor for the rest of his career. “After writing the album,” he told Billboard, “I felt I’d given everything out, and I’m willing to keep doing that with my music for the rest of my life.” Here’s to seeing how he keeps pouring his heart out.
“Money On My Mind”: “Money On My Mind” kicks off the album on a sprightly note, with a crisp, skittering backbeat and chopped-up backing exhalations. The first official single is a bit of a bait-and-switch: those kinds of synthesizers don’t set the tone for the record but reappear until the very end, and at first listen it’s easy to focus on the blaring chorus and miss the “I don’t have” that sneaks up beforehand.
“Good Thing”: Beginning with swelling strings that spill into a muted guitar line like teardrops breaking (yes, it’s that dramatic), the second track is the real beginning of the end that “In the Lonely Hour” is all about. Here lie the first hints of trouble in Smith’s relationship, from a dream that he was mugged outside his beloved’s house to the worse realization that he dared think his love was reciprocated.
“Stay With Me”: Smith wowed an audience likely seeing him for the first time with this stunning cut on “Saturday Night Live.” In it, he turns a desperate plea for a one-night stand to stay into an eloquent statement on being a sensitive man who knows what he wants, but has no illusions that he’ll get it. With judiciously placed tambourines, the song builds to a resounding gospel chorus that would give goosebumps to even the most hardened Don Juan.
“Leave Your Lover”: Asking for one night to keep going, begging the one he’s in love with to leave his lover — anyone who’s made those same mistakes knows the outcome usually doesn’t work out like a movie ending. This is one of the few moments on the record where it’s apparent Smith has never been in a relationship; otherwise he would realize such dramatic concessions (standing in the rain, willing to give up everything) don’t work if he’s just not that into you.
“I’m Not the Only One”: The first turning point of the record, this is where Smith goes home, dries off, and picks himself back up. “I can’t believe you let me down,” he says, disappointment dragging toward the bottom of his range before his voice raises to anger, accusing, “You say I’m crazy, because you don’t think I know what you’ve done.” The violins surging behind the breakdown are so high-pitched they practically sting.
“I’ve Told You Now”: Smith is a master of contrasting volume and affect. Most of the songs on “In the Lonely Hour” escalate to the explosive emotional climax with restraint so subtle you can hear the guitarist’s fingers on the fret board. “What the hell,” Smith growls, before asking the one question we all ask ourselves when everything goes to shit: “Why?” Here, Smith goes off into his falsetto like a balloon gone awry before being pulled in just as it’s about to fly away.
“Like I Can”: This song begins not unlike Adele’s rip-roaring salvo “Rolling In the Deep,” with insistent, whispered strumming that kindles deep indignation and frustration. Smith’s insistence of his stronger feelings is fueled with a full band, another choir, and a barely perceptible sweeping sound in the background, like an ocean rising up behind him to swallow his lover’s inadequate partner.
“Life Support”: Most addicts relapse at some point, and this song is Smith recanting his anger at one of his most vulnerable points. Sleeping with the lights on, he grasps at self-sufficiency (“This is my choice”) even while saying he needs his “drug,” the person meant to fill the bed he built for two. Smith’s falsetto blurs words together until they eventually collapse against each other during the song’s breakdown, which mirrors his own.
“Not In That Way”: From this song’s opening guitar notes, it’s not hard to mistake it for a lost B-side to Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” It took Smith two-thirds of the record to arrive at this final conversation, where he admits the truth to himself and the one he loves. With just the simple melody and Smith’s reluctant honesty (“I hate to say I want you when you make it so clear you don’t want me”), “Not In That Way” is one of the record’s finest moments.
“Lay Me Down”: Another of Smith’s debuts on “SNL,” “Lay Me Down” has more of a theatrical flair than other songs, segueing from a Broadway musical’s storytelling speak-sing, to Whitney Houston’s vocal acrobatics, to classy Frank Sinatra strings, to a sudden militaristic drum beat. Within a single song, Smith runs the gamut of emotions he’s been exploring throughout “In the Lonely Hour,” and seems to undo all the emotional work he had been doing to get over his heartbreak.
“Restart”: As implied by its title, “Restart” returns to the record’s upbeat beginning and dials it up a notch. With the bounce of select cuts from “Bad,” Smith moves through uplifting pianos reminiscent of Des’ree. To drive the point home, he scratches and rewinds his verses. Sonically, if not emotionally, it’s a logical progression from “Lay Me Down,” and at any rate it’s good to see him come back from the brink of wallowing.
“Latch”: In the context of “In the Lonely Hour,” the lyrics on “Latch” (“Now I’ve got you in my space/ I won’t let go of you”) sound far sadder than sweet or even sexy, as they did when Disclosure was behind the boards. Now, when Smith sings about his heart beating out of his chest, his throaty wail makes it sound like the organ is being ripped out.
“La La La”: Originally meant to be sung by Emeli Sande and featured on London producer Naughty Boy’s full-length debut, Hotel Cabana, “La La La” is a bit incongruous with “In the Lonely Hour.” With a rhythm closer to downtempo breakbeat than anything else on the record, the song is clearly helmed by the producer, not the singer. That’s not a bad thing — it’s a well-crafted, expertly executed pop song that may have fit better with Smith’s original vision for his record.
“Make It To Me”: And, we’re back. By this point, the listener has become emotionally invested in Smith’s ill-fated quest to get over the man who broke his heart. After expressing righteous anger and depression, Smith goes back to the beginning, asking the one person who completes him to come back; otherwise the world is just too lonely. Here he also lets loose with the record’s only guitar solo, ending the record on a surprisingly carefree note.