Review Summary: This ain't love, it's clear to see.
For those of you who don’t listen to the radio on a regular basis (and judging by the abundance of metalheads on Sputnik, it’s likely that most of you don’t), the top 40 has started moving back in the direction of a rose-tinted affirmation that the past had some darn good music. The most obvious (and cringe-worthy) example is MKTO’s “Classic,” bearing the flag of pop’s “return to roots” with the subtlety of a sledgehammer and a proclivity towards slickly-produced arena-fillers worshipping at the feet of Adam Levine circa Hands All Over
. The fact that we’re now considering MJ and Prince “classics” notwithstanding, the song’s popularity is a pretty good indicator that the Billboard charts have shifted violently away from Pitbull-addled EDM. You’ve still got the aftereffects of the trap boom, obviously (Jason Derulo’s nonsensical “Talk Dirty to Me” and the memetically-omnipresent “Turn Down for What” stand out), but also very present are the simplistic pop-reggae of “Rude,” seemingly straight out of the late ‘90s, the classically Latin-pop-guitar-driven “Am I Wrong,” and the the-’80s-called-and-they-want-Lionel-Richie-back ballad “All of Me” leading the way for the resurgence of ostensibly analog, instrument-driven music in the charts.
To preemptively counteract any critical accusations that the utter hollowness of such a move clearly demonstrates the music industry big guns are interested in profit over good music and are paving a path to their own destruction and yadda yadda yadda, the minor gods in control of the radio (and therefore America’s general musical taste) have decided to drop a Sam Smith song into the fray. “Stay With Me” has done a fine job of appeasing most of the music press, and for good reason: the boy with the golden voice bares himself to the cutting judgment of listeners internationally, whimpering pathetically (emphasis on the pathos
here - this is not meant to be a criticism) about how fu
cked up he is in needing more love than what’s contained in the transitory one-night-stand he’s just had before dropping into one of the most gorgeous choruses this side of Justin Timberlake. It’s reasonably tragic - enough so that we can sympathize with his struggles as a young man in a cruel, cruel world, but not quite so much that we can’t actually enjoy the song while driving down the interstate.
If I sound a bit jaded here, it’s because my thoughts on this song are irrevocably colored by my thoughts on the rest of the album. Make no mistake - “Stay With Me” is one of the finest pop songs of the year. Sure, it’s sappy as hell, but it capitalizes on that sappiness (in large part thanks to Smith’s gorgeous voice, something I can’t stress enough here) to create a tune that’s almost celebratory in its misery. Why else would the melancholy major key sound so sweet? Why else would the gospel vocals come soaring in so prettily?
Taken in a vacuum, the song is pristine, crystalline, wonderful. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come packaged alone. Smith’s producers do too good of a job in masking the inevitably high-tech nature of the album, and as a result the songs almost sound too perfect. Again, in the case of “Stay With Me,” that’s perfectly fine - the song doesn’t try to veil itself in minimalism, and is all the better for it. Unfortunately, the bare-bones strings, pianos, and acoustic guitars which make up most of In the Lonely Hour
are so well-mastered that Smith’s vulnerability - which comes across as relatively sincere when he’s at his best - feels like a facade. The potential intimacy of “Not in That Way” comes off as befuddlingly painted-on, edgeless and light on emotions, mostly thanks to too-clean guitar and reverberation. Similarly, any attempt at displaying a sincerely crushed-yet-hopeful tone on “Lay Me Down” fails when the piece takes a turn for the mass-produced Broadway ballad, destroying any traces of honest-to-goodness emotion and sincerity built up by the introduction.
In the Lonely Hour
succeeds when it embraces the power and consequences of a major-label recording budget without losing Smith’s penchant for soul in the process. “Money on My Mind” sees Smith channeling the ravey pop-house killers on which he’s been featured (“Latch,” “La La La”) with a simple, effective piano riff and breakbeat pattern under his spiraling vocals, and it’s one of the clear standouts here. Unfortunately, such successes are few and far between, and whatever goodwill the best few songs build up is mostly wiped away by the schlocky strings of “Good Thing” and the painfully insipid chorus of “Leave Your Lover.” Smith’s obviously trying to pour himself out onto an MP3 file, but at times it feels as though he’s trying to express himself even when there’s nothing to say.
This is exactly why the album is as disappointing as it is. Part of what made Smith so alluring as a featured vocalist was that Disclosure and Naughty Boy had no pretenses of using standard instruments to fulfill with their songs. One of the reasons those two songs sounded so good, then, was because it was fascinating to hear Smith’s clearly untreated and quintessentially human voice over a chorus that would be impossible to recreate without synthesizers, samplers, or computers. In the Lonely Hour
is a step back from that dichotomy: Smith, in trying to move towards a more familiar and vivid sound, ended up with the things that killed that authenticity. Overproduction, inconsistent insights into his own psyche, and most of all the clean, whitewashed sound we ended up with instead of a Sam Smith sound (whatever that would mean for him) demolished the soul we looked for so desperately here. In the Lonely Hour
is less meaningless and vapid than a song as unapologetically hammy as “Classic,” but the result is unfortunately the same.