Sunday, June 8, 2014

My Sam Smith Track of the Day: "I've Told You Now"

Last week during a South African TV airing of the U.S. version of The Voice Adam Levine and Blake Shelton faced off over a guy who clearly wanted to be the next Frank Sinatra, or Michael Bubl√©. Adam suggested that as his team coach/mentor, he would help him polish his delivery, while Blake promised to do the opposite. The country star, who revealed his secret love for all things Dean Martin that day, thought the upstart crooner's smooth approach could use some mussing up. I agreed with Blake, and so, apparently, did the contestant, who opted to join his team.

Listening to Sam Smith's debut album, In the Lonely Hour (not to be confused with "In a Lonely Place," New Order's 1981 B-side, or the 1950 film noir of the same title), which will be released in the U.S. on June 17, I can't help but remember Blake's words of wisdom because they could apply to the newly minted British rising star, too. Smith just raised his profile in the U.S. by coming out as gay, and I wish he'd incorporated some of that daring into In the Lonely Hour.

While I have no doubt that when the dust of 2014 clears and the end of December comes, In the Lonely Hour will be hailed as one of the debut albums of the year, I miss the quirk and cutting edginess of "La La La" and "Latch," Smith's previous collaborations with, respectively, Naughty Boy and Disclosure, and "Safe with Me," the opening track from his 2013 Nirvana EP. He approaches his own material, his own love story (or rather unrequited-love story), too respectfully, like someone tip-toeing through a room full of fragile memories, moving as carefully as possible to avoid disrupting anything. But hearts are meant to fall, break and shatter into a million pieces, all over love's bloody battlefield.

There's a surplus of pain here, but not enough of the spontaneous wild abandon that makes all the difference between singing about that pain and reliving it? The antiseptic approach seeps into the production: For an album about messy emotions, In the Lonely Hour, sounds surprisingly neat.

It's a similar issue I have with the work of Bruno Mars and even Adele's 21 when I compare it to 19, but it might also be the reason why Smith might deserve the title "the next Adele" more than any British newcomer since 21. Polished sells (as Adam Levine obviously knows from personal experience with Maroon 5's high-gloss hits). Smith's singles with Naughty Boy and Disclosure have both reached the halfway point of the U.S. Top 40 (so far), but his third solo single, "Stay with Me," which is as groundbreaking as its title, is the one that's zooming up the charts. It climbs 12 notches on this week's Billboard Hot 100 to No. 19, threatening to become his own "Rolling in the Deep."

Meanwhile, "Stay" just became his third UK chart-topper, after "La La La" and "Money on My Mind," the former of which is currently rising in the U.S. Top 40 alongside "Stay" and "Latch," a belated U.S. hit two years after its initial release. (Could it be that Smith's coming out raised his profile in a positive way, boding well for the future of future out and proud pop singers?) It's even received the imprimatur of none other than Mary J. Blige, who sang "Stay with Me" with Smith on the Darkchild remix. Yes, polish sells, though for me, it rarely makes for moving pop, even with Mary pitching in with the tugging of those heartstrings.

But when Smith lets his guard down a little and revisits the looser, more adventurous spirit of his earlier work (as he does so engagingly on "Money on My Mind" and "Like I Can"), he nails it. And then there's "I've Told You Now," which sounds warmer and more elegant and full bodied in the album version than it has in all of the live acoustic renditions I've heard, thanks to the fleshed out but still-tastefully spartan production of Jimmy Napes, Steve Fitzmaurice and Eg White, the latter of whom, as a co-songwriter, was partly responsible for my two favorite moments ("Hanging On Too Long" and "Delayed Devotion") on Duffy's 2008 debut, Rockferry, as well as Adele's "Chasing Pavements," which he also produced. It would take a strong strong man (to quote Smith's blue-eyed-soulful forerunner Rick Astley) to make me love a modern pop ballad, and with "I've Told You Now," Smith accomplishes the near-impossible.

Every time it begins, it tricks me into thinking it's going to be a cover of Wynonna Judd's "Only Love," and by the 2:18 mark, the blend of vulnerability and defiance in Smith's vocals have me feeling his romantic pain just as acutely as he must have been when he was singing the song. "I've Told You Now" fools me into thinking I'm going through the same thing, which is the greatest thing a great modern pop ballad can do.

"I've Told You Now"

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