In the Lonely Hour
Sam Smith's debut album is titled In the Lonely Hour. But it could just have easily been called It's a Sad, Sad, Sad, Sad World. In this collection of emotionally raw songs about rejection, the 22-year-old Briton makes quite a convincing play for becoming the Patron Saint of Unrequited Love.
Only one song here isn't about that topic. On the other nine, this much-ballyhooed soul singer (whose fragile, plaintive falsetto eerily echoes that of Simply Red frontman Mike Hucknall) autobiographically chronicles his utter relational and personal devastation. So bare does Smith lay his soul, in fact, that by the end of the album I found myself wanting to look away from his heartsick agony out of a basic sense of decency and dignity.
Culturally and morally complicating this sweeping sadness is the fact that in the weeks leading up to the album's release, Smith addressed and confirmed rumors regarding his sexual orientation, telling thefader.com, "In the Lonely Hour is about a guy that I fell in love with last year, and he didn't love me back. … It's about a guy and that's what I wanted people to know—I want to be clear that that's what it's about."
The sole song not addressing rejection is album opener "Money on My Mind," on which Smith indicates that his love of singing, not a desire for fame and fortune, drives him ("I don't have/Money on my mind/Money on my mind/I do it for/I do it for the love"). "Leave Your Lover" affirms something similar with the line, "What use is money when you need someone to hold?" Then, on "Good Things," Smith admits that the wisest thing to do in a bad romance is to put an end to it ("Although you made my heart sing, to stay with you would be wrong").
A night of casual sex on the hit single "Stay With Me" isn't exactly the end goal for Smith, but he still uses it to soothe his soul ("Guess it's true, I'm not very good at a one-night stand/ ... This ain't love, it's clear to see/But darling, stay with me/ ... And deep down I know this never works/but you can lay with me so it doesn't hurt"). Physical and emotional intimacy mingle again on "Lay Me Down," as we hear, "Your touch, your skin/Where do I begin?/ ... Can I lay by your side, next to you, you?/ ... I don't want to be here if I can't be with you tonight."
"Leave Your Lover" finds Smith pleading with someone to do just that via this desperate promise: "I will give you all of me/Just leave your lover, leave him for me." That theme gets a half-turn on "I'm Not the Only One," a story about a man staying with a sexual partner he knows is cheating on him ("You say I'm crazy/'Cause you don't think I know what you've done/But when you call me baby/I know I'm not the only one"). And "Like I Can" acknowledges that the object of Smith's affections may have had other partners ("There may be lovers who hold out their hands"), but argues that their spiritually tortured personalities actually make them a perfect match ("We both have demons that we can't stand/I love your demons, like devils can").
"Life Support" confesses, "I built this bed for me and you," then practically begs, "Could you see that I am yours/So will you be my life support?" "I've Told You Now" repeats the phrase "what the h---."
In many ways, Sam Smith's debut is just like myriad other albums over pop music's long history that have narrated the sad story of a broken heart. Anyone who's ever been on the receiving end of romantic rejection will likely relate to the forlorn feelings Smith invokes here.
In one significant way, however, Smith is on the cultural vanguard of something relatively new: an openly gay artist talking about love in ways we're used to hearing only straight artists sing about it. So in the same way that homosexual characters on TV have strongly influenced our culture's rapidly changing thoughts about sexuality in the last decade or two, I wonder how much homosexual singers might further influence the way music lovers understand and relate to their own sexual longings and temptations.
Apart from Sam Smith's sexual orientation and how it affects the way we hear his songs, I will also hasten to add that In the Lonely hour is definitely that … lonely. And it's desperate, too. This is one of the most despondent albums I've heard in a long time. And it's also one that assumes love and sex (of whatever sort) are interchangeable.