Sam Smith is no stranger to the spotlight having won the “Critic’s Choice Award” at the BRIT Awards early this year, reaching the top 10 billboard charts with his single “Stay With Me” and taking the number one spot on the billboard with his single “Money on My Mind,” which all came before the release of his debut album In the Lonely Hour on the 26th of May. It release in the US this past Tuesday after being such a hit overseas.
This diverse album shows off a variety of styles that come with the different artists Smith had worked with in the writing process, ranging from synthpop to blues to influences of Motown. A lot of the instrumentals display a minimalist style, usually consisting of simple, resonating, chord progressions with guitar and piano such as “Stay with Me,” “Not in That Way,” and “Good Things.” This is an important part of Smith’s technique because he is a very lyrical writer and music that is lyrical generally should not have the chance to be out-shown or distracted by intense instrumentals. Surprisingly, unlike many modern artists, he does not use drums on many songs, and the rest have very open simple beats (baring “Money on My Mind” and “Life Support” since the drum beat was likely written by Two Inch Punch, the produce of the song).
Sam is a fantastic singer, but his talent goes deeper than the surface. He uses several different types of singing styles which are prevalent through many of the genres he takes influence from. Many R&B artists sing with a smooth falsetto which, when mastered, can be a signature sound, like how Frank Ocean is known for his smooth, high vocals. However, Sam Smith uses a nasal voice as well, which is exclusively how Cee Lo Green sings and is a dominant technique used by his musical idol, Amy Winehouse. Nasal voices are commonly thought of as whiny and annoying but they have surprisingly been used for many years in genres stretching from gritty Texas blues to smooth jazz and R&B.
The album opens up with “Money on My Mind,” which was an outlier to the album due to its heavily synthesized and complex instrumentals that clashes with the simple tracks that come after it. This is largely due to the previously mentioned producer, Two Inch Punch, who wrote most of the instrumentals for this song. The instrumentals were too overbearing for Sam’s voice to have to fight for attention. The lyrics, however, are much more to the emotion style of Smith, following themes like “I do it for the love,” which reflects how he writes music because it is his passion, rather than for money, which juxtaposes many recent artist that write about the fame and glamour of being a musician.
The next track, “Good Thing,” puts Smith’s mindset from when he was writing this album into perspective by showing the longing he had for a lost love as well as the morbid thoughts that are packaged with heartbreak. In the first line, smith says, “I had a dream I was mugged outside your house,” displaying both of these ideas very vividly. This track features the guitar work of Francis White, with its consistent plucking that still stays true to the minimalist approach that Sam has been working for throughout the album.
The third song became a number one hit in the UK. “Stay With Me” is the perfect example of Smith’s lyrical longing for the love that he lost, the resonant instrumentals, and fondness for soulful music. If any one song off the album should be considered the essence of Smith, it is this song. Good albums always revolve around a theme or an idea and has a song to represent this, and it seems like this album was written around this song. Overall, the steady beat, lovely vocals, and momentous chorus are why this song has essentially become the face Sam Smith.
The fourth song, “Leave Your Lover” is most distinguishable for its intense lyrics where Smith begs his former love to come back to him and leave the person they are with, but he knows that will never happen. Song five, “I’m Not the Only One,” shares this main idea, but with much more involving instrumentals and Smith shows off his skill for nasal singing. After that, “I’ve Told You Now,” goes into the troubles he had in his previous relationships a bit. Unfortunately, slow, resonant, piano chord progressions and a guitar that alternates strumming and picking the same progression can get repetitive, so this central part of the album gets a bit mundane. There is little that makes these songs stand out amongst the rest of the album. Even though they have well written lyrics, and the background does its job to support the lyrics, rather than outshine them, it makes them fairly insignificant to the whole album.
Similar to “Money on My Mind,” “Like I Can” is another odd ball track that does not seem to fit with the rest of the album. The instrumentals are a lot more centered towards pop alternative, with a tight, very present drum beat and a steady palm muted guitar. The lyrics still tie in with most of Sam’s other lyrics but the instrumentals do not fit his singing style, which needs the support from music. This song simply has too much going on for Smith’s voice to excel in what it does best. It is like how when an instrument solos, all the rhythm parts drop back. Sam’s voice is constantly in a solo, and if the whole band is playing at full velocity then his solo loses its effect.
“Life Support,” song eight, may be the most iconic song on the album besides “Stay With Me.” Unlike “Money on My Mind,” this song incorporates the synthpop style that Two Inch Punch is known for in a way that is not overbearing and out of place. This lets it be a song that is radio applicable, as most of Sam’s music is not very catchy. Not to say his music is not good, but most of his music is not something that is going to be anthems of summer. “Life Support” and “Stay with Me” are both catchy while still under his usual style.
Nearing the end of the album, “Not in That Way” is the most unique song on the album while still sticking to the essence that Smith has been working so hard to cement into this album. The only instrument in the song is a mellow, bluesy, guitar, which supports the minimalist style but it so different because Sam never ventures that far into the blues genre or has that style of guitar playing. The lyrics reflect an issue that Sam has a lot, where he falls in love but is not loved in return.
The last song on the regular album is “Lay Me Down” is a showcase track for his voice. He shifts in between a high, nasal, soulful voice and a deeper, growly, voice which he hasn’t used yet on the album. Then he picks up the music a bit, giving it a pulse at the bridge. It is one of the more upbeat songs on the album, and as the last song, it provides a solid ending so the listener leaves on a positive note.
The first bonus track is “Restart,” which features 80’s pop instrumentals that are low key enough to complement his voice. It is also a good example of Smith’s superb falsetto skills, going higher than on any other track on the chorus. Overall, the song is a refreshing change from the low key instrumentals that still remains mellow enough to be included in this collection of his work.
The next two songs, “Latch (acoustic)” and “La La La,” are songs that featured Smith but were released by other artists. Smith takes his own approach to “Latch” by Disclosure, making it like the rest of his song, soft and acoustic, while still keeping the pop feel that the original had. If you didn’t know better, you would assume it was his own song. “La La La” by Naughty boy was kept the same as it was when he released it, but the instrumentals still match his calm style.
The last new song on the album, “Make It to Me,” is very similar to “Stay with Me” in its melody and instrumentals. It is hard create any sort of diversity between songs when the only instruments used are piano and guitar. He is hindered more in the way he uses these instruments to create ambience. As in the center of the album, his songs start to blend together again. There are distinguishing factors such as a guitar solo towards the end, but other than that, there is not much to make each song stand out from each other.
The next song is a version of “Stay with Me,” where Smith is accompanied by Mary J. Blige. Oddly, they do not harmonize until the outro of the song. Mary only does one verse and a couple background trills. This is odd because Mary J. Blige is an R&B legend, and her talent severely outshines Sam Smith’s, and she does not sing very much throughout the song. It was likely a publicity stunt to promote Smith rather than an actual artistic attempt for two wonderful singers to come together.
The last song on the deluxe album is the title track, “In the Lonely Hour.” It is odd for an artist to have the song the album is named after as a deluxe album exclusive. The song is closer to pop than R&B due to its upbeat chord progression. It still follows Smith’s traditional style of open piano and no drums to progress the song. The lyrics, again, reflect the general ideas of the album, the longing for lost love and the depression that comes with it. This song best personifies his idea, which is likely why the album was named after it.
Overall, each of these songs could hold up well on their own. Each song is beautiful in the way that it is written and performed. However, Sam does not have a very diverse style, and, while the album itself is very diverse, many of the songs blend together due to them lacking any features that distinguish them from each other. There are also a few songs out of the album that do not fit Smith’s style of writing instrumentals or his voice. The album was setup strange in general, having one of the outlier songs first, and by having “In the Lonely Hour” as a bonus song in the deluxe edition instead of on the regular album. Also, the album is diverse, but in the way that it strays too far from the majority if the album so that it distracts from the work as a whole. While Sam does have a variety of singing skills, he does not have the experience to utilize them to their full potential.
For as much criticism as I give, I also must applaud his minimalist attitude which is so rare in music. It takes a lot of skill to write music that is solely held up by vocal abilities and lyrics. This is what makes Sam Smith as mystifying as a musician. Most songs need instrumentals to support the vocals so if the lyrics or the vocals are not powerful enough to sustain the song, then people can still get hooked on the instrumentals. However, the reason most artists do not do this is it is extremely difficult to pull off, and even though Smith did a wonderful job with this album, it is still far from a perfect album.
Christian Page is a student from New Mexico that has been studying music since he was nine years old. He has made the state youth orchestra for both the upright bass and classical guitar. He’s been studying poetry for the past year.