Sam Smith sings soul songs, but not in the usual way. Where most of this genre’s singers shout, he moans. While anger fires many, Smith focuses on hurt. It’s the sound a wound would make, a cry without defense or deflection. It’s so raw, it isn’t always easy to listen to, yet millions can’t help it. Smith’s debut album, “In the Lonely Hour,” shows why.
“Money On My Mind” kicks off the album with a crisp, skittering backbeat and chopped-up backing exhalations. The first official single is a bit of a bait-and-switch: the synthesizers don’t set the tone for the record but do reappear at 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” begins with swelling strings that spill into a muted guitar line, the second track is the real beginning of the end which, “In the Lonely Hour” is all about.
The first time I saw Smith was when he wowed an audience on “Saturday Night Live.” He killed it with “Stay With Me”judiciously placed tambourines, the song builds to a resounding gospel chorus that would give goose bumps to even the most hardened unromantic heart.
“Leave Your Lover” is gorgeous in its simplicity; guitar, piano & string accompany a heavenly melody floating from falsetto to chest voice and back.
The first turning point of the record, “I’m Not the Only One”is where Smith digs down to 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.
On “I’ve Told You Now” Smith is a master of contrasting volume and affect. The phrases escalate to the explosive emotional climax with restraint so subtle you can hear the guitarist’s fingers on the fret board. 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” begins with whispered strumming that kindles deep indignation and frustration. Smith’s insistence of his stronger feelings is fueled with a full band, another choir.
Smith recants his anger at one of his most vulnerable points with “Life Support”. Smith’s falsetto blurs words together until they eventually collapse against each other during the song’s breakdown, which mirrors his own.
From the opening guitar notes of “Not In That Way”, it resembles Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” With just the simple melody and Smith’s reluctant honesty, it is one of the record’s finest moments.
Another of Smith’s debuts on “SNL,” “Lay Me Down” has more of a theatrical flair than other songs, blending Broadway musical’s storytelling with Whitney Houston’s vocal acrobatics, and a splash of classy Frank Sinatra strings, supported by a military drum beat.
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. 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.
Smith sings about his heart beating out of his chest on “Latch”, his throaty wail makes it sound like the organ is being ripped out.
On “Make It To Me” Smith lets loose with the record’s only guitar solo, ending the record on a surprisingly carefree note.
If you get this CD, you’ll discover Sam Smith sings soul songs, but not in the usual way.