#10 – SAM SMITH – IN THE LONELY HOUR [spotify]

(feat. track – “By Your Side” (Live on SNL) [spotify link to studio recording])

I read an article recently (which for the life of me I can’t find now – if you know it, please link me and I’ll update) which, in part, mused about what went wrong with Sam Smith’s critical reception over 2014. It’s something I’ve been wondering about as well. Coming into the year, Smith was the hot new voice behind Disclosure’s “Latch,” a massive hit in the UK – and in critical circles – which had yet to register a blip on the US pop charts. Smith himself was something of an enigma: a soaring falsetto that promised what we’d heard was just the tip of the iceberg, backing by all the right people, a man potentially on the verge of his big breakthrough.

Here we are only a year later, and he’s fading cracks like this:

Smith achieved all the success he was destined for and more in 2014, but somewhere along the way, he lost his cool – and along with it, the place he deserved in the year-end lists of any site with a whit of indie cred.

The shame of it is, In The Lonely Hour is an immaculate album: a mature study of all of love’s snares and dares, a concise ten tracks, gorgeous, superbly-crafted songs that breeze by on Smith’s effortless, marvelous voice. Unlike the aforementioned Michael Bolton, Smith never blusters his way through a song; indeed, while he never lacks for power, it’s the fragility in his voice, the way his falsetto flits upward ever so weightlessly, that makes him such a marvelous vessel for conveying precisely where love’s trusses and tensions lie. 

And yet, as good as the recorded album is, when I think of Sam Smith’s 2014, I always come back to his performance on Saturday Night Live, his de facto unveiling to American audiences (and, indeed, to me as well, who knew nothing of Smith at the time beyond “Latch”). Not the 11:55 performance of “Stay With Me,” which was pretty great in it’s own right, but the second performance – often home to weirder, stranger, newer or less-immediate material from the week’s musical guest – in which Smith, accompanied only by stately piano and a gently somber cell, lays waste to all of Manhattan with his lovesick quaver on “By Your Side.” It’s the most affecting single performance – on TV or live – that I had the pleasure of experiencing in the last year. 

If Smith had packed his bags and moved to a deserted island right after his SNL performance, we’d still be talking about him today as a marvelous talent, here and sadly gone. That the remainder of 2014 greeted him with continued success instead, changes nothing.