You can’t deny the ridiculous success of Sam Smith. His debut album, In The Lonely Hour, rocketed him into the position of a genuine global superstar. There’s a track on this new repackaging that’s live from Madison Square Garden, which is just a taste of what he and those around him have achieved. Now, with this Drowning Shadows version of that record, he’s getting the re-release treatment.
Over the summer, I provoked the ire of some with a scathing review of Smith’s festival shows at both Nos Alive and V Festival. My problem was primarily with what I deemed to be false sincerity and emotion. Listening to a Sam Smith record in full, which I did for the first time for the purposes of this review, eliminates some of what I found so worthy of scorn from the equation. Smith is an artist who is more tolerable on record than he is in the live arena. As a pop performer, that’s probably not the damning verdict that it might be for a guitar band with eyes on headlining festivals.
Still, hearing a track like 'Money on my Mind' will still bug me more than it has any right to. You can’t feasibly claim to not have money on your mind when you’ve been fast-tracked to success by the wealth of those around you. Similarly, these special edition releases are about as much a cash cow as you can possibly conceive. Neither of these things are necessarily Sam Smith’s fault, but that doesn’t stop it from rendering the song to be basically null. Maybe we shouldn’t expect sincerity from our pop acts and I’m approaching this from completely the wrong angle if I’m to get anything from it.
Later, 'Like I Can' is his strongest song from the original release. Its slow burn build is one of those moments that makes you question whether you’re just being the cynical music writer. Another strong moment comes in the form of the live version of 'Latch' from Madison Square Garden: when Smith stops halfway the track to say he can’t do this track without Disclosure, it’s the high point of the record.
The problem is that the strength of this only serves to shine a light on the weakness of the acoustic version of 'Latch' that made the record first time around. It’s a song stripped of everything that made it palatable and the sort of thing you’d expect to be played as John Lewis make their annual attempt to shill toasters. Unfortunately, it’s probably this track that I think of as representing Smith best.
The rest of the album falls into that same category. A duet with Mary J Blige doesn’t improve 'Stay With Me' whatsoever and similar collaborations don’t serve to make any headway. Outside of the live track featuring Disclosure, the best thing that you can say about the additions to the record is that they at least didn’t include arguably the least impactful James Bond theme tune of all time.
The success of Smith remains a mystery to me. In most cases, you can identify a feature that others see in an act that drives it to success but here there’s only one thing that stands out and that’s the sob story that comes with his live show. The rehearsed between song sympathy grab designed to move an audience that I’ve criticised so heavily in the past. The result is an act that comes across like the very worst X Factor winner that never actually went on the show.
These deluxe editions are often a way of hoovering up funds and I can’t see any reason to think any differently of this. The most redeeming point of it is that it avoids the saccharine sentiment of his live shows but that doesn’t change the fact that so far his musical output has sounded like the equivalent of a soaking wet towel being slapped against a tile wall.
2Luke Beardsworth's Score