Anyone unfamiliar with the rather ordinary sounding musician Sam Smith may notice him from his featured vocals in Naughty Boy’s chart topping “La La La” or Disclosure’s club smash “Latch.” Now he faces the challenging task of matching the quality and success of his guest appearances with his solo effort, In the Lonely Hour. Luckily for many fans, Smith takes that challenge as motivation as he attempts to prove his newfound success was well deserved.
Like most other UK imports with a hit single or two in the bag, Smith needs his debut to become something more than just an “OK” album if he has any hope of surviving the brutal music industry. Due to his previous collaborative success, it comes as no surprise his record label set him up with top producers Fraser T Smith, Eg White, and Two Inch Punch to help perfect his individual sound. Even with titles such as BBC’s Sound of 2014 or BRIT’s Critics Choice Award under his belt, Smith unfortunately struggles on his solo album by playing it too safe. While not a bad album, the same magic and sonic innovations that his artists spots seemed to indicate is lacking.
Starting the record off is first single “Money On My Mind,” a disappointingly basic song that is made up of punchy percussion beats and dull piano keystrokes. What brings this song down is an awful chorus that strays away from Smith’s usual soul-drenched voice to make way for an aggravatingly, high-pitched hook of “I don’t have money on my mind. I do it for, I do it for the love.” By the time “Stay With Me” and “Leave Your Lover” come along, its clear that In the Lonely Hour suffers from a sort of chronic melancholy that can be heard throughout the lyrics and gloomy, slow moving instrumentals. The album does offer several glimpses of Smith’s brilliance, especially in “Stay With Me,” a desperate plea to a lover to stay a little longer as he expresses his tendency to get attached. While remaining slow, the track is more climatic thanks to Smith’s soaring vocals and a harmonizing gospel choir, although not exactly a song you’ll keep playing on repeat.
On a record call of songs of unrequited love (and there are a lot of them here), none is as strong or as sentimental as “Leave Your Lover,” a lonely piano ballad that showcases the soulfulness of Smith’s vocals. The lyrics themselves are a huge upgrade from the lazily thought out chorus on “Money On My Mind.” Smith commands an audience as he expresses what its like to be in a one sided love by saying “You’ll never know the endless nights, the rhyming of the rain, Or how it feels to fall behind and watch you call his name.” Other album highlights include: “Life Support,” a much more contemporary track that dabbles in a mild dub step beat while cascading over a tranquil guitar pluck and Smith’s retro-soul voice, and “Good Thing,” another sad love song with a memorable chorus of “Too much of a good thing won’t be good for long.”
You can what Sam Smith was trying to do on In the Lonely Hour by keeping things simple and surely there’s an argument to be made that less is more. However, in this case, his emotional pleas, the transcending gospel choirs, and his overall vocal talents are not enough to please those looking for stadium packed chants and occasionally uplifting music. His album stays rooted in an breeze of overbearing sadness and heavyhearted remorse, which is perfectly fine for a few songs, but with hits like “La La La” and “Latch” the record leaves fans wishing he has experimented outside his comfort zones.