The Week In Pop

Can Sam Smith Put Up Adele Numbers This Holiday Season?

Ever since he made the leap from golden-throated Disclosure associate to sulking adult-contemporary torch singer extraordinaire, Sam Smith has caught the same comparison over and over again: He’s the male Adele.

Observers cited the parallel frequently when assessing 2014 debut In The Lonely Hour, and it always rang true. And even though Smith has carved out his own distinct persona in the intervening years, it still does. Both are white Britons who deploy their force-of-nature voices in service of tear-stained laments so squarely middle-of-the-road they risk getting run down by motorists and not just careless lovers. Both have proven to be jovial presences outside the context of their somber balladry, celebrities just as comfortable on a talk-show couch as in front of a microphone. Both have suffered damage to their weapons-grade vocal cords that required medical attention. Both have recorded Bond themes. Both have regularly espoused progressive views despite making extremely conservative music. Both are so marvelously, obscenely popular that they can take their sweet time between album releases and return to a hero’s welcome. And when those new albums finally do come around, neither artist seems interested in advancing beyond the straitlaced traditionalism they made their fortune on.

For Smith, new album season has arrived just in time to coincide with holiday season. The Thrill Of It All, his sophomore LP, is out tomorrow, with Halloween freshly wrapped and gifts soon to follow. That puts him in prime position to enjoy the same kind of Christmas sales rush that fueled the historic success of Adele’s 25. That album sold so many copies (more than 8 million in the US alone) in part because it was released six days before Thanksgiving 2015, just in time to capitalize on embarrassing American commerce celebrations like Black Friday and Cyber Monday and more generally to be a go-to purchase for people who didn’t know what else to get their relatives. Around the time of the album’s release SNL built a great digital short around the premise that Adele was the only force that could bring warring family members together at Thanksgiving, and there was quite a bit of truth to it. You don’t go 8x Diamond these days without appealing across demographics.

If any artist is poised to enjoy a similar stocking-stuffing surge, it’s Smith, and his release date seems intentionally timed to try. He may not boast Adele’s near-universal approval — in fact, his hopeless-romantic antics are polarizing in a manner Adele has largely eluded — but his potency among easy-listening partisans can not be understated. (My own mother, who mostly listens to oldies and contemporary Christian music, was on board before his debut album even dropped.) Just like Adele, a significant fraction of Smith’s fan base seems to comprise people who only buy one or two albums a year, either because they’ve aged out of voracious fandom or they never developed a sophisticated musical palate in the first place. And even those of us who still vigorously seek out new music and who like to think of ourselves as slightly beyond basic (if only slightly, in my own case) still sometimes succumb to the charms of Smith’s powerhouse vocals blasted across sonic landscapes engineered for maximum sentimentality.

Two questions, then: Does Smith have the juice to put up Adele-grade blockbuster sales figures this time around? And is The Thrill Of It All worthy of such widespread exposure?

Let’s address the second question first. As someone who was captivated by Smith’s breakthrough performance on “Latch” and still feels sore about him veering away from dance-floor electricity toward dignified blandness, I must admit The Thrill Of It All is better than I want to give it credit for. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not likely to change your opinion of Smith, and it doesn’t represent much of an advancement from the weepy, string-laden stylings of In The Lonely Hour. As a title, The Thrill Of It All feels more than a little ironic. But if you can vibe with Adele at her best, you can probably appreciate several of these songs too.

Smith, longtime writing partner Jimmy Napes, and a handful of other collaborators barely budged from the formula that rewarded them so handsomely last time. The gospel choir that helped lift “Stay With Me” and “I’m Not The Only One” to the American top 10 appears with an almost comic frequency, and literally the only surprise on the whole album is how blatantly “Midnight Train” rips off Radiohead’s “Creep” (funny coming from a guy whose biggest hit was also a ripoff and who once claimed he didn’t know who Thom Yorke was). But if you’ve ever been bewitched by his music’s saccharine allure, this new album offers plenty of tunes smartly constructed for similar effect. And as ever, the boy can sing: His rich, full-bodied delivery rockets from deep bellows to delicate falsettos with a grace most professional singers must envy.

Lead single and opening track “Too Good At Goodbyes” is indicative of the album’s approach: Maudlin piano chords and finger snaps build to a big blue-eyed soul chorus, replete with that omnipresent gospel choir to lend gravity to the proceedings. It’s brazenly milquetoast enough that I was initially repulsed but insidiously catchy enough that the damn thing is always stuck in my head and I don’t even really mind. Not exciting enough to love nor annoying enough to hate, it’s best appreciated from the marketing side as an effective opening bow from a man whose personal brand is “lovelorn schmuck with a voice like a miracle.” You may hate what he does, but he’s way too good at it.

That’s followed by a glassier, more synthetic lost-love story called “Say It First” that feels futuristically moody enough to pass for Zayn. “One Last Song” is a brassy big-band Michael Bublé type thing, a sound reprised less effectively later on “Baby You Make Me Crazy.” Another piano ballad, “Burning,” sells its corny smoking/longing metaphor because minimalism plays to Smith’s strengths; “Palace” pulls the same trick with guitar, but it’s no match for “Not In That Way,” an early track that once had me thinking Smith had the potential to be his generation’s Jeff Buckley. There is also “No Peace,” a pensive duet with Yebba, a singer for whom Smith and Ed Sheeran are apparently looking to provide a bump similar to the one Taylor Swift gave them.

The most interesting moments on the album are when Smith reckons with God. Side B kicks off with “HIM,” a tune that recalls Hozier and Kanye West and dark Disney ballads all at once, on which Catholic-educated, out-and-proud Smith sings from the perspective of a gay Mississippi boy grappling with his view of his creator and vice versa. “I feel you staring when he is with me,” he sings, “How can I make you understand?” It’s a compelling portrait of a man in spiritual crisis, even if it does trigger some light “Take Me To Church” PTSD. Less effective is the Timbaland-produced “Pray,” inspired by Smith’s humanitarian trip to Mosul. That one also takes the form of a prayer, with Smith petitioning God to take care of suffering people because “I lift up my head and the world is on fire/ There’s dread in my heart and fear in my bones/ And I just don’t know what to say.” The sentiment is admirable, but the ostentatious execution makes me miss previous Timbaland soft-rock dreck like “Apologize.”

OK, so: Does The Thrill Of It All deserve to sell millions of copies and rule the holiday season? I mean, if you want to start listing off superior albums we’ll be here well beyond New Year’s Day, but realistically speaking it’s about as enjoyable as any lukewarm general-audience #1 album in waiting. As for the other question, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if The Thrill Of It All challenged Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. for 2017’s sales crown, but for a number of reasons, I question whether Smith is in a position to touch Adele’s numbers.

First of all, “Too Good At Goodbyes” has not been the same unstoppable behemoth “Stay With Me” was; although it’s remained near the top of the charts for about a month, it’s already declining before the album even drops. On the other hand, “Stay With Me” wasn’t the last album’s first single, so who knows how high some of these other songs might soar? Then there’s the reality that Smith is out there living as a queer person in a way that probably offends some of his potential fan base among America’s Fox News block. On the other hand, singing love songs with male pronouns and coming out as gender-fluid might gain him as many fans as it costs him. Lastly, no one had released an album as big as 25 since the last Adele record, 21; she has long operated on her own playing field far above the rest of the music industry.

Smith, a somewhat dopey 25-year-old from small-town England with a propensity for putting his foot in his mouth, seems like an unlikely character to join her up there, even after a recent social awakening and Instagram-friendly weight loss. But no matter whether you “Aw!” or guffaw at artifacts like this recent New York Times feature, which begins with a colorfully descriptive report of the many times he cried throughout a two-hour interview, there is one huge factor working in his favor: If Adele’s not out here slinging high-fructose drama this holiday season, her counterpart has that lane all to himself. What else are you going to buy your parents for Christmas this year?

CHART WATCH

Niall Horan becomes the third One Direction alumnus to see his debut solo album go #1 this week thanks to 152,000 equivalent album units and 128,000 in traditional album sales for Flicker (which I didn’t set out to trash but ended up trashing anyway). Per Billboard, the Beatles are the only other group to spin off #1 solo albums by three different members.

Future and Young Thug’s surprise collaboration SUPER SLIMEY enters at #2 with 75,000 units but only 15,000 in sales. Billboard reports that it’s the highest charting album ever for Thug, whose previous peak was #7 with 2016’s Slime Season 3. Future, meanwhile, has five #1 albums to his name, including two in consecutive weeks earlier this year.

Pink’s Beautiful Trauma slides to #3, while Post Malone’s Stoney holds steady at #4. Then comes country singer Chris Young at #5 with 39,000 units/32,000 sales for Losing Sleep. Gucci Mane and Ed Sheeran are at #6 and #7 respectively, and then at #8 Darius Rucker’s newest country collection When Was The Last Time bows with 34,000 units/30,000 sales. Lil Uzi Vert and Demi Lovato round out the top 10.

Post Malone and 21 Savage’s “Rockstar” holds onto #1 on the Hot 100 singles chart for a third straight week, and the next four tracks also repeat from last week: Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)” at #2, Logic/Alessia Cara/Khalid’s “1-800-273-8255″ at #3, Portugal. The Man’s “Feel It Still” at #4, and Imagine Dragons’ “Thunder” at #5. Up to #6 is Demi Lovato’s “Sorry Not Sorry,” another career chart peak for what is becoming her signature hit.

At a new #7 high point is Camila Cabello and Young Thug’s “Havana,” which becomes the former Fifth Harmony member’s second top-10 hit as a solo act and first as a lead artist; it’s also Thug’s first ever top-10 hit, and combined with the career best debut for SUPER SLIMEY it’s actually not a stretch this to call this the best week of his career. J Balvin, Willy William, and Beyoncé’s “Mi Gente” is at #8, followed by Sam Smith’s “Too Good At Goodbyes” at #9. And at a new #10 peak is Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect,” which Billboard reports is his sixth top-10 single as an artist and his ninth as a writer.

POP FIVE

N.E.R.D. – “Lemon” (Feat. Rihanna)
As someone who has always considered N.E.R.D. to be one of Pharrell’s least interesting hustles, I’m pleased to report that this sounds more like a Pharrell x Rihanna rap duet over prime Neptunes production. If N.E.R.D. are doing a whole album like this, it’s going to be ridiculously fun.

David Guetta & Afrojack – “Dirty Sexy Money” (Feat. Charli XCX & French Montana)
This is basically a new Charli XCX song, one that demonstrates what her pop pedigree sounds like through the most mainstream filter possible: pretty dope, if you ask me. Three observations: (1) I love that she did the 4/4 placeholder grunting thing as heard on such hip-hop hits as Chance’s “No Problem” and Kendrick’s “DNA.” (2) It’s fun to see how much different this feels from her SOPHIE/PC Music collaborations with only minimal stylistic changes. (3) LOL at French Montana staying on brand by worming his way onto another potential hit without doing much of anything.

Clean Bandit – “I Miss You” (Feat. Julia Michaels)
I am here for this new reality in which every new pop single features Julia Michaels.

PRETTYMUCH – “Open Arms”
Are PRETTYMUCH gaining ground in the new boy band power rankings?! This new one, a midtempo love song with booming trap bass, suggests they may be stronger competition for Why Don’t We than I originally thought.

Portugal. The Man – “Live In The Moment”
Portugal. The Man are currently enjoying the biggest rock crossover hit in five years with “Feel It Still.” This is their attempt to follow it up. I don’t know that it will get burn on pop stations, but it should keep them in heavy rotation on alternative radio. (Personally I think it’s… fine?)

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Tove Lo announced Blue Lips’ release date and revealed its risqué cover art. [Twitter]
  • Zayn talked about the making of his next album in a Billboard cover story. [Billboard]
  • Julia Michaels responded to critics who apparently didn’t think she looked somber enough while singing “Heavy” at Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington tribute show in Hollywood. [Alternative Nation]
  • Kelly Clarkson sang “Since U Been Gone” backwards on The Tonight Show. [YouTube]
  • Christina Aguilera will perform a Whitney Houston medley at the AMAs. [AP]
  • Simon Cowell missed an X Factor taping after falling at home. [Billboard]
  • Evanescence singer Amy Lee recovered $1M in a lawsuit, but she has to spend it all on various court fees. [TMZ]
  • Flo Rida, Smokey Robinson, and Common with Andra are among the performers at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in NYC. [NYT]
  • Taylor Swift shared a “Gorgeous” “making of” video via AT&T. [YouTube]
  • Jared Leto won’t play Hugh Hefner in a biopic after all. [Deadline]
  • Beyoncé and JAY-Z dressed as Lil Kim and the Notorious B.I.G. for Halloween. [Instagram]
  • ClickHole published an oral history of One Direction. [ClickHole]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME

HOLD ON, WE’RE STILL GOING HOME

OK, WE’RE REALLY GOING HOME THIS TIME