Review Summary: Too much of a good thing won't be good for long
Sam Smith's debut LP opens with the line "When I signed my deal, I felt pressure
". In this day and age, it's considered a brave move to "tell all" about your experiences with the record label, and to be a bit more blunt, this really isn't the first time Smith has vented his frustration with the pressure he felt getting signed; he recently stated in an interview that he kept wanting to get famous and worked with someone who told him he could basically be the next big thing overnight. And he didn't, and felt like a complete fucking idiot for it. While it's easy to sympathize with him considering he was 16 years old when this happened, it sadly seems as if this album is the sound of someone who wanted to be famous for so long, and finally it's happened, but not much has changed.
It's easy to see why the kid is determined to become the male answer to Adele; his surprise hit "Stay With Me" illustrates that his craft has been mastered pretty well already: sugary and creamy falsettos, emotional lyrics (TM), rather minimalistic instrumentation, big chorus, etc. "Stay With Me" isn't a particularly good song, but it's an admirable one at that; the gospel-like chorus and steady beat and production is sure to become a staple in "Best of 2010" lists. But it also illustrates the main problem: Sam Smith thinks he has something to say, but really doesn't. And it sadly sets the tone for the bulk of the songs on In the Lonely Hour
. It's not that any of the songs are bad, it's that they have the potential to be great and they should be paving a hopeful path for Smith, but the album is riddled with moments that reek of self indulgence and- without a doubt the worst crime in today's music- trying way too hard.
A part of this can be chalked up to the lyrics. Smith recently stated that much of the album is about a man he fell in love with, who didn't love him back. An entire album of heartbreak is never a bad thing- look at Adele, whose two current albums are filled to the brim with soulful, beautiful and painful music that comes from the most bitter of broken hearts. But heartbreak doesn't even begin to disguise how mud of a total creep he comes off as at times (and even a jerk). For starters, in the second song "Good Thing", he starts the song off by saying that he fantasizes about being mugged outside the man's house just to get his attention; a move that even Stephenie Meyer would call spineless; in "Leave Your Lover" he spends the whole song trying to make him reject his lover just for him, and in the final track he even threatens to kill himself so the man would notice. Rather cheerful lyrical content aside, it also resorts to cheesy Ed Sheeranesque metaphors such as "You're the drug that gets me through" and so forth. In a nutshell, Smith is no Adele. There's nothing here to make me feel for him and all it makes me feel is, "what a douche, no wonder this guy didn't love you back."
There's also the music and production that is a problem too. The opening track "Money on My Mind" isn't particularly bad until we get to the dreadful and overproduced chorus, and this sets the tone for most of the songs on the album. I would love a song like "Good Thing" if it didn't reek so badly of "try-hardism" with that forced drumbeat. Several of huge songs are laden with strings where not necessary- "Leave Your Lover" is a good example of a laid-back and threadbare tune ruined by unnecessary overproduction. I guess a part of it too could be his voice. And here is where I'll flat out say it: his voice is seriously not that good. His voice isn't terrible, and vocals that aren't "good" aren't always a problem- but his british accent slips and overly forced texture that at times makes him sound as if he has a mouth full of marbles make his attempts at emoting hard to take seriously.
No doubt is this album going to be popular, and why shouldn't it; in an age where even the slightest voice crack in a song by default means the song is "raw" and "emotional", songs about your suicide attempt due to your mum not buying the right brand of chocolate milk are "edgy" and "daring". And that's exactly why I can't see that bright of a future for Smith; he fits right in with "flavour of the month" brand of music, and it's obvious that he aspires to be more than that, but if his debut is anything to swear by, he doesn't do much to transcend his hopes. And I hope he can prove me wrong, but as the saying goes, "first impressions are important", and I can't see anything else for him other than being forgotten a few months to a years time.