Sam Smith

In the Lonely Hour

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Disclosure's loping dance-pop single "Latch," a number 11 U.K. hit in 2012, introduced Sam Smith, a London-born vocalist with a deeply emotive voice. Smith grew up listening to R&B giants Chaka Khan, Luther Vandross, and Whitney Houston, but his first impression was unique, not merely for the richness of his voice, but its resoundingly expressive yet naturally delivered manner -- on a level most singers can't match with maximum effort. Early 2013 brought his debut solo single, "Lay Me Down" -- an aching singer/songwriter-soul throwback that scraped the U.K. Top 50. It was quickly eclipsed by a lead role on Naughty Boy's "La La La," a breakbeat-driven tearjerker that went to number one in the U.K. and then reached the Top 20 in the U.S. "Money on My Mind," an upbeat statement of purpose more about the soul than the heart, and "Stay with Me," a torch song with a gospel-inspired chorus, were Smith's second and third solo singles. They preceded the release of In the Lonely Hour, the singer and songwriter's debut album. Those three solo singles are here, along with seven new songs that tend to cast Smith as a heartbroken balladeer. Deep sorrow informs most of the material. Much more about mourning than movement here, Smith is bold for not attempting to capitalize on the Disclosure and Naughty Boy hits. The dominance of stripped-down backdrops -- some with merely piano, acoustic guitar, and conservative strings -- is somewhat surprising. That puts all the more focus on Smith's voice and words, the latter of which switch between borderline maudlin ("What use is money when you need someone to hold?") and disarmingly brazen ("Just leave your lover, leave him for me"). If Smith didn't have such a remarkable voice, he could stay busy composing songs for artists in several genres; the anthemic "Like I Can" could be easily adapted for a contemporary country singer, while a few others could be turned over to young pop artists in need of material that makes them sound more human. This is an understated and promising first step from an unpredictable and distinctive talent.

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