The Week In Pop

The Week In Pop: I Took My Mom To A Sam Smith Concert

Back in spring 2014, when Sam Smith was beginning his climb from angel-voiced Disclosure collaborator to world-conquering superstar, I worried about the direction his career might take. Noting the distinct lack of star power emanating from Smith at the time, I compared him to Rick Astley (fair) and Susan Boyle (cruel) and wrote, “He is poised to become the rare singer who succeeds at pop stardom simply because people (get this) love hearing his voice.” My fear was that despite Smith’s powerhouse vocals, which gave Disclosure’s “Latch” such a jolt of electricity, he was too much of a shy, uncoordinated dweeb to succeed in any arena but adult contemporary pop. This was just after a Saturday Night Live appearance that suggested Smith’s comments about making “timeless” music translated to a traditionalist, easy-listening sound.

Sure enough, beyond long-forgotten lead single “Money On My Mind,” debut album In The Lonely Hour forewent dance-pop in favor of the whitebread lite-FM stylings that have become known as Smith’s signature sound. And sure enough, that album made him one of music’s biggest stars, spawning three top-10 singles and lingering in or near the Billboard 200 top 10 for well over a year. He became the “next Adele” that he was widely predicted to be, all the way down to recording a Bond theme, the recent “Writing’s On The Wall.” Smith released that song’s video Sunday, just days after announcing a deluxe edition of In The Lonely Hour, “my thank you to you all, and the final bow before my second album.” But before he turns the page on this era, he has a few concerts left to perform. One of them was in my home base of Columbus this past Monday night, so naturally, I took my mom.

It’s easy to joke about moms loving Sam Smith, but in all seriousness, the moment my mother became a fan was the moment I knew Smith’s success was guaranteed. This was a couple months before the album dropped; she saw him perform on CBS Sunday Morning and fell in love with his voice, so she asked me to pre-order In The Lonely Hour as a Mothers Day gift. For a musician to cross over from my internet hype vortex into my mom’s conservative suburban world so quickly was unprecedented. The man was destined for — not greatness, necessarily, but ubiquity at least.

All that fame and fortune was endangered earlier this year when Smith underwent microsurgery to stop what his doctors called “recurrent vocal cord hemorrhage… the result of unstable blood vessels in the vocal cord that can rupture and prevent vocal performance.” Smith must have been desperately nervous — his biggest asset by far, that titanic singing voice, was in jeopardy. After seeing him in action this week, I can affirm that Smith’s voice is fully, wondrously operational. And it’s a good thing because despite a few minor performance upgrades, that voice is still the main thing he’s got going for him.

What a voice, though! Smith’s vocals have this miraculous quality about them that never seems to wear off, and it’s even more impressive to hear him generate them in real time, outside the safety of the recording studio. They’re a force of nature, but he’s able to deftly control that power, to reel it in or let it rip on command. Smith sings with a rich, almost luscious texture, impossibly soft yet undeniably strong, and a bellowing depth that follows him all the way to the top of his falsetto. It’s a lion’s roar, a bird’s flutter, and an expensive fabric all at once. And even in the context of some seriously corny music, it remained a revelation.

I do not object to the abundance of slow jams Smith trotted out Monday. The man is ideally suited to crush that kind of song, and he did so repeatedly — among them “Leave Your Lover,” “I’m Not The Only One,” “Nirvana,” “Lay Me Down,” and an especially tingly “Not In That Way” topped off with a bit of “I Can’t Help Falling In Love” — much to the delight of the middle-aged couple in front of us who kept FaceTiming their apparently disinterested daughter. I get why “Stay With Me,” which has become Smith’s signature song, was the big closing number rather than something more upbeat. I get why he covered “My Funny Valentine” — which was filmed for an upcoming televised Frank Sinatra tribute — rather than some off-kilter obscurity. As much as I longed for the guy to apply his formidable talents to something more adventurous, this is the path he has chosen, and at this point he completely owns his lane. Watching him do his thing, I wondered how long it would take him to release a Christmas album.

But does the sharp-dressed showman route really require him to take all the bite out of even his fast songs? Utmost among the evening’s letdowns was Smith’s decision to open the encore with his lounge-ready version of “Latch,” which has to be the most disappointing acoustic remake since Eric Clapton neutered the once mighty “Layla” for MTV Unplugged. It’s not like Smith’s live show was lacking for ballads; why not bust out the original Disclosure arrangement and set the room on fire? (Shockingly, after “Latch” someone in the crowd called out for “Omen,” the recent Smith/Disclosure single that landed with a thud on this side of the Atlantic. The request was not obliged.) Meanwhile, Smith’s band rendered both the sumptuous funk of Disclosure/Nile Rodgers collab “Together” and the house-inflected “Money On My Mind” as dancefloor elevator music. Among the uptempo selections, only Naughty Boy’s “La La La” provided the proper endorphin rush.

Perhaps his arrangements are so toothless because that’s all his stage presence allows for. Smith began the concert standing behind a curtain so rigidly that I almost mistook him for that wax figure he loves so much, and though he eventually loosened up a bit, his movements still gave the impression of an android learning to use his body. That lack of physical grace became even more apparent with each laughable attempt at coordinated dancing with his backup singers. Maybe he feels like he needs to work on his choreography before he can let his band really cut loose? Still, to his credit, Smith has developed his charisma quite a bit since his days of staring at the floor in SNL promos; his time touring the world’s arenas and awards shows has served him well, as have all those hours he’s obviously logged in the gym. Smith carries himself like a star now, albeit an uncoordinated star.

That might be all the progress he needs to rule the adult contemporary scene for decades. All night my mom kept commenting on what a wondrous instrument Smith’s voice is. On the way out, when I asked her what she liked about the show beyond Smith’s rhapsodic vocals, she explained, “He’s a sincere performer,” something that definitely came through during several heartfelt addresses to the audience. Mom added that Smith’s music reminded her of some of her ’70s favorites such as Chicago and Earth Wind & Fire. As long as he keeps tapping that vein, he ought to have an army of devotees flocking to arenas and keeping his records in the top 10. Yet if Smith is smart, he’ll find a way to put some extra groove in his music next time around. See, Mom didn’t end up spending much time with her copy of In The Lonely Hour because she found it too depressing. Even my 58-year-old mother knows Smith needs to put a skip in his step, and I think Smith realizes it too. Given the way Monday’s show went, though, I suspect his method of doing so will please Mom a lot more than it pleases me.

CHART WATCH

Don Henley would have you believe his album debuted at #1 this week, and Cass County did indeed sell more copies than any other release — more than 87,000, to be specific. But the crankiest Eagle is the latest victim of Billboard’s newfangled chart system; thanks to streaming data and track sales, Fetty Wap’s self-titled debut easily surpassed Henley’s record to enter the Billboard 200 on top. Fetty Wap moved 129,000 equivalent units — or approximately 1,738 x 74.2 — making Fetty the first rapper to see his debut studio album enter at #1 since A$AP Rocky’s Long.Live.A$AP in early 2013, per Billboard. Drake and Future’s What A Time To Be Alive follows at #2 with 107,000, putting Henley’s Cass County and its 89,000 units at #3. Wonder what Don thinks of that! It’s his highest-charting solo album either way.

Five more top-10 debuts on the albums chart: George Strait’s Cold Beer Conversation (#4, 86,000), fellow country singer Thomas Rhett’s Tangled Up (#6, 76,000), CHVRCHES’ Stereogum-beloved Every Open Eye (#8, 38,000), Disclosure’s Stereogum-derided Caracal (#9, 35,000), and the Dead Weather’s Stereogum-appreciated Dodge And Burn (#10, 33,000). And the only other albums in the top 10 are pretty predictable: They’re by the Weeknd and Taylor Swift, 2015 pop’s king and queen.

Speaking of the Weeknd, his “The Hills” is America’s top single for a third straight week, which ties it with “Can’t Feel My Face” as his longest-running #1, which is crazy because “The Hills” is way less poppy than “Can’t Feel My Face.” Meanwhile, Drake’s “Hotline Bling” is up to #3, making it his highest-charting track since “Best I Ever Had” way back in 2009 according to Billboard, which is also crazy because Drake has released so many songs that are better than “Hotline Bling.” Fetty Wap’s “679” climbs to #5, qualifying it as his second top-5 hit, which is crazy because the superior “My Way” only made it to #7. And Shawn Mendes, the Vine star and Justin Bieber labelmate who Bieber heavily shaded a few weeks ago, scores his first top-10 hit with #9 “Stitches,” which is crazy because Shawn Mendes suuuuuuuuucks.

TRACK CITY

In lieu of writing about the new Selena Gomez single or, like, Mr. Hudson, I’m handing over this week’s tracks section to noted pop blogger Taylor Swift.

Love the thought of Swift vibing out to EL VY and M.I.A. Here’s the whole playlist in Spotify form (apologies, Taylor), minus Emmy’s “Sleep On It,” which doesn’t seem to exist in any publicly attainable form. UPDATE: My old college pal Rohan Mahadevan informs me that Swift’s spelling is off, and the artist is actually named Emmi. Thus, her track “Sleep On It” has been added to the playlist, though to be honest it’s probably the worst song on there.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Justin Bieber’s new album is called Purpose, and he tattooed the title on his stomach. [Instagram]
  • Ariana Grande teased her new single “Focus.” [Instagram]
  • Iggy Azalea’s next album is called Digital Distortion, and its lead single is out this month. [Direct Lyrics]
  • Ellie Goulding defended her use of a backing track during live performances. [USA Today]
  • Nick Carter did a Backstreet Boys tribute on Dancing With The Stars. [E!]
  • Breaking: Taylor Swift is popular. [NYT]
  • However, even Swift realizes it’s time to retreat from the spotlight for a while. [NME]
  • Beyonce and Jay Z are moving into the Big Lebowski house. [Vulture]
  • Selena Gomez underwent chemotherapy for lupus. [HuffPo]
  • The world’s first ever Bruno Mars wax figure has been unveiled. [Getty]
  • Demi Lovato posed for some risque Vanity Fair photos. [Vanity Fair]
  • Lady Gaga did her thing in the American Horror Story premiere. [Vulture]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME