Thursday, January 08, 2015

In the Lonely Hour - Sam Smith

Often, Saturday Night Live is the vehicle by which I get first exposure to a hip new artist I've heard of from music people, but never actually heard. This has been true in recent months for acts like Hozier and Haim (who was really impressive). Then one unassuming Saturday evening, March 29, to be exact, I sat back to watch a musical act I'd never ever heard of. Sam Smith blew me away. He's got an amazing voice, very smooth, with great range and a unique character. He sang, "Stay with Me," the first hit single off his forthcoming album and blew the socks off the place.

I googled him pretty quickly and realized, with his odd (so likely trendy) personal style, young age, overbearing momager, without his SNL performance (his first of any kind in the US), I likely would have written him off as a British Bieber and left it at that. I've written here before how important a good SNL appearance can be in establishing a musical reputation. It's just tough to do live TV well, even moreso when you're just singing. U2 and Arcade Fire do everything right. Britney Spears and the Spice Girls tried top sing acapella, bombing miserably.

So when Sam Smith came out for his second number (Lay Me Down) and tried the same thing (or at least, in my memory, it's acapella), it was almost like watching someone walk a tightrope over the Grand Canyon. He killed it and I was sold as a fan. Dude can sing. His momager might actually be competent if she decided SNL was the right place to unleash her son on the US market. Nailing that performance almost guaranteed a positive reception and, judging by the radio play (not to mention all the Grammy noms), it's worked out pretty well for him.

As soon as his album showed up on Spotify, I was all over it. Even my daughter likes it (and she usually sticks with female artists, unless they're singing about volcanos). It's a great first album. Comparisons to Adele are quite deserved. He's got the vocal chops and is at least credited with writing on each track (although I imagine he gets more help than Adele).*

Loving the guy for his voice, I was initially thrown off by the first track - Money on My Mind, an out and out dance track, but the guy sings enough and the beat is great. You get into it really fast and it helps you remember this kid is 21 when he's recording this.

Smith shows serious songwriting chops, along with a true understanding of production diversity with tracks like Good Thing or Leave Your Lover.

By the time you get to Stay With Me on the third track, you're excited to hear something familiar, but it also stealthily reminds you any track on the album would make a good single. It's the first moment you realize this is a full-fledged album, one that just might attract Grammy voters.

I made hay a few years back when Taylor Swift won the Album of the Year with Fearless. Sure, she was a brilliant songwriter, especially for her age, and she may be something someday - it was just too early. In the end, though, the voters seem to know. Swift has made at least one record worthy of the award (likely two - I haven't heard 1989 yet) and, in the future, no one is going to look past the name. There have certainly been more deserving nominees often, but you have to go back to 1970 (Blood, Sweat, and Tears) before you see a name who genuinely doesn't belong.

There are some places to critique, smooth, and improve on this album. The first half of I've Told You Now is shaky (although completely redeemed by the second half). I have a lot of production questions on Life Support (which has some of my favorite writing on the album). Like Swift's early stuff, there's obvious places you say, "that could be better," but you're genuinely enjoying it most of the time. There's more to saw for Smith than Swift, simply because he's not making a straight-out pop album. This may be the direction pop is headed, but the whole piece seems personal and timely, with such promise to come.

A track like Not in that Way comes at you like a nightclub tune from days of yore, but he infuses his stuff with clearly modern elements that highlight the voice. There are ten songs on the album and seven of them are out-of-this-world gems, the kind of songs that will be covered with sincerity for years to come. It's just a lot to believe from someone so young and so new. It really is reminiscent of what Adele came up with, but it's better than her first attempt, which only makes me eager to get to the sophomore offering.

I'm obviously coming to this with no small bias, which is why I'm reviewing it first, but at the same time, I feigned hope for its nomination back in April. I never expected what amounts to a pretty weak year in album-making (at least on the Grammy's radar), where it is clearly one of the best.

*Speaking of this, Adele is rumored to have a new album coming out this year - if the Grammy producers don't get them to duet (maybe a new school bluesy tribute to the late Jimmy Ruffin with a nominal appearance from Smokey Robinson) it will be a super tragedy (contextually).

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