San Francisco – Not every day is a good day. Sometimes, there are unpleasant experiences that can gnaw at us, like being late in line at the post office or persistent nausea on the bus. Though they are often quite temporary, these mild instances of discomfort can feel like the world is ending. Yet these moments pass, and we forget about them…until they happen again, and we spiral into frantic hyperbole once more.
Soulful UK newcomer Sam Smith knows a different kind of pain – one that most of us have felt at one time or another throughout our lives. These types of wounds heal less quickly; they are the scars left in the wake of true psychological injury, solved only with patience, reflection, understanding, and perhaps a big pitcher of margaritas. Those who are more artistically inclined, however—like Mr. Smith—find solace with their music.
Sam Smith’s heart-wrenching debut In The Lonely Hour follows in the footsteps of the many great torch song collections that came before it. Much like Swedish singer Lykke Li’s last two albums and Adele’s smash sophomore effort 21, the album begs for closure, or at least a willing shoulder to cry on.
Smith is perhaps best known as the angelic vocalist featured on Disclosure’s hit single “Latch,”—a gorgeous acoustic version of which is available on the album’s deluxe version, as well as Smith’s previously released Nirvana EP. His solo album is a departure from “Latch,” and what we are left with is a man trying his best to bare his soul to those who care to listen.
The album’s opening track, “Money On My Mind,” begins with the honest assertion that his music is more for himself rather than commercial success (‘I don’t have money on my mind/I do it for the love’). The album then unfolds with unabashed openness, charting his struggle with a desire that is unfortunately one-sided.
Both the instrumentation and the lyrics on this album are stripped down, speaking to the sting of tragically mismatched affection. From the orchestral intro of the second track (“Good Thing”) to the final notes of the last track (“Lay Me Down”) Smith parades his courage as he tackles the trying task of pouring his heart out. “Good Thing” begins with an overture-like swarm of strings that morphs into a murmured guitar, as Smith barrels ‘I had a dream I was mugged outside your house/I had a dream in a panic you came running out.’ The imagery is a tad strong, but the yearning to be rescued—metaphorically or not—is universal. He wants to be noticed, even if only in tragedy. He goes on to say ‘too much of a good thing won’t be good anymore’ as he succumbs to the painful realization that no matter what, he cannot bring his love to fruition.
The album continues with the gospel-tinged “Stay With Me,” imploring a casual lover (‘I guess it’s true I’m not good at one-night stand’) to stay through the night with him; not for love, but to combat loneliness (‘lay with me so it doesn’t hurt’). The soulful choir that joins him on the booming chorus gives the song a hint of spirituality, almost as if he is praying for companionship, however fleeting it may be.
On many of the other tracks on In The Lonely Hour, Smith explores this pleading, whether for his love to end a relationship to be with him (“Leave Your Lover”), or a more poetic entreaty likening a prospective romance to vital medicine (“Life Support”). He even seems to question his own motives, demonstrating flashes of anger while his octave-jumping vocals bloom violently in the incendiary “I’ve Told You Now”. Inner struggles also become apparent in the penultimate track “Not In That Way,” a beautifully executed ballad that feels like an early Jeff Buckley track. The lyrics weave a tapestry of sincere emotion that could unravel at the mercy of Smith’s own unforgiving insecurity. As saddening as these songs are to hear, they brilliantly portray the kind of lunacy when detained within the self-constructed prison of maddening uncertainty.
Sam Smith publicly came out of the closet in a recent interview, confessing that most of his album is the result of an unanswered attraction towards another man. Coming to terms with one’s sexuality is hard enough; having to face the disappointment of being spurned by someone you care about deeply is harder still. Sam Smith took both of these struggles in stride, and created something with In The Lonely Hour that reflects a level of strength and tenacity that many have difficulty achieving.
In the end, I don’t think Smith wants us to feel sorry for him, but to relate to him. In The Lonely Hour is an exercise in honest communication, as well as personal triumph. He’s reaching out to those of us who have felt what he feels, in order to find a common ground. And it’s noticeably genuine.
I will probably never formally meet the man, but part of me feels like he’s here with me now, hailing the waitress to order a fresh pitcher of margaritas, and I already feel like I can trust him. Because he does it for the love. In The Lonely Hour is out now in the U.K. and will be released in the U.S. on June 17th.