Twenty-two-year-old singer-songwriter Sam Smith has been favorably compared to fellow U.K. tragedian Adele, and with good reason: Both artists trade in the blue-eyed balladry of lovers scorned with strikingly emotional nakedness. But Antony Hegarty would be a more apt parallel: Both Smith and Hegarty identify as LGBT, and both have moonlighted as vocalists for house acts (lending their falsettos to Disclosure’s hit “Latch” and Hercules and Love Affair’s much-celebrated debut, respectively). Still, it’s hard not to compare Smith’s first solo effort to Adele’s 21. In the Lonely Hour isn’t a breakup album, per se, since it’s unclear whether the object of Smith’s affections and regret ever reciprocated his feelings, or if the relationship was even consummated. That latter notion is a particularly fascinating one, as it one-ups Adele’s attempt to get over an ex by posing a perhaps even more impossible query: How do you get over something you never had?
Tying this question to Smith’s sexuality is inevitable, but the fact that the singer has come out of the closet so hot on the heels of his mainstream pop success is ultimately more revolutionary than the songs themselves, which avoid the use of masculine personal pronouns and largely stick to middle-of-the-road R&B arrangements. Though Smith lays his cards on the table on the very first song, “Money on My Mind,” claiming he makes music not for money, but “for the love,” it’s no surprise that, with the exception of “Life Support,” the track’s skittering garage beats are henceforth shelved in favor of languorous downers with plodding loops and morose tales of unrequited love.
Thankfully, the songs are mercifully short. Just when you’ve started to grow weary of Smith’s pity party, it’s over. And there are enough moments of genuine musical, lyrical, and vocal virtuosity and soul to crack even the most hardened listener’s icy heart. After whimpering first verses, the gospel-inflected “Stay with Me” and “Lay Me Down” are saved by their heartbreaking, rousing hooks—and, of course, that voice. “I had a dream I was mugged outside your house,” Smith croons on the standout “Good Thing,” his fantasy of being rescued highlighting the Hollywood-propagated fiction about “falling” in love. “I watch where I tread before I fall,” he sings, the final word punctuated by an orchestral swell straight out of a Technicolor movie musical. It’s proof that despite the forward march of progress, and with gays as visible as ever, there will always be hearts burdened by love that lives in the shadows.