If, like me, you had never heard of Sam Smith before he appeared on SNL, then you must also be reacting with a mixture of surprise and inevitability as his debut album, In the Lonely Hour, continues to tear up the charts. Surprise due to the fact that a relatively new U.K. act has already successfully become big on the American charts and inevitability due to the obvious aim of his American record company's attempts to turn him into the "male Adele."
So far, they seem to have succeeded at one thing—his album is selling quite well considering he only has the one single out. However, there is one noticeable difference: His reviews have been very mixed when compared to albums like 19 or Our Version of Events. I considered starting this blog off with a review of his debut album but after listening to it, I certainly can understand the relatively lukewarm critical reception and feel he’s more of a “single’s artist”—at least for now. So instead I thought I’d take a look at his first single to hit America, which, at the time of this writing, is number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, called “Stay With Me.”
The song opens with a relatively simple chord progression before Sam begins to sing and immediately lays his cards down on the table:
Guess it’s true, I’m not a good at a one night stand
But I still need love, ‘cause I’m just a man
These nights never seemed to go to plan
I don’t want you to leave, will you hold my hand?
A relatively simple beginning, certainly. He does a pretty decent job of describing the moment: he’s in bed the morning after and then his lover gets dressed and prepares to leave him behind. Which leads to the chorus:
Oh, won’t you stay with me?
‘Cause you’re all I need
This ain’t love, it’s clear to see
But darling, stay with me.
The chorus is a bit of a double-edged sword: the contrast it creates with the verses make the song, with the choir harmonies in the background helping accentuate his soft delivery. On the other hand, using gospel influence has long been a trick used in pop music to try and inflect soul into generic music to make up for underwritten lyrics and this song, as I’ll explain, is not as cleverly written as it could be.
Why am I so emotional?
No, it’s not a good look and some self-control
I know this never works
But you can lay with me so it doesn’t hurt
First of all: rhyming “works” with “hurt”? Maybe I can let that slide since he’s British and this is a pop song that’s made specifically for radio play, but seriously, uncreative much? And that leads us to the biggest problem with this song—this is pretty much the last of the lyrics to this song. For the rest of the song, he just repeats the chorus. It gets a bit more musically interesting with the bridge and the choir vocalizing, but the rest of the song sounds pretty much exactly the same. From the piano chords, to his voice remaining in the same key and tempo, it just gets really boring when listened to more than once or twice. I'm not saying I have a problem with simple song structure; I'm just saying that when you use simple chords and focus on the artist's voice, the least thing you can do is have them say something interesting or say something traditional in a personal way. But Sam can't do that since he's never been in a relationship and has admitted to writing from that perspective. So it would help if the music were more creative, yet all I feel is very "been there, don't that" when I listen to this. Thankfully, it’s only about three minutes so it doesn’t outstay its welcome.
As for Sam Smith himself: I like him and also don’t, if that makes any sense. I’ve long wanted more male pop stars on the charts and with him crossing over, maybe that means more U. K. acts like Jessie Ware will be given more of a chance. It’s hard to hate him: He’s got a unique and solid voice, he can convey emotion well, and he definitely writes a memorable hook. The flipside of those compliments are that his singing sounds like he’s swallowing marbles half the time, he seems to only be able to sound sad and nothing else, and his hooks may be memorable, but his melodies are so simplistic I forget them outside of a few songs off his album (this plays into my “single’s artist” criticism).
And yet . . . This song isn’t bad at all, really. When looked at in its original context—a pop song made for the purpose of being played on the radio—it’s not unwelcome. Though the charts this year seem to be struggling to find the “sound of 2014,” Sam Smith at least gives us a sound that’s classic and pleasant.