Sam Smith’s Voice Deserves To Be Turned Loose On A Much Rawer Breakup Album Than Love Goes
“I wanna be wild and young,” Sam Smith sings at the start of their new album Love Goes. It’s something I’ve wished for Smith for a long time. Ever since Disclosure’s crossover garage hit “Latch” introduced the preternaturally gifted vocalist to the world, I’ve been wishing they’d return to that gliding, electrifying dance-floor vibe rather than the milquetoast adult contemporary fare that has become their wheelhouse. I can’t help mentioning the song whenever I write about Smith. Regardless of how many Platinum albums or top-10 singles Smith accumulates, “Latch” looms over their career for me, a fleeting moment of brilliance they’ve never been able to repeat even when teaming with Disclosure to try it again. That particular electricity may have been lightning in a bottle.
Smith’s plea for unchained youth emerges on “Young,” a digitally laced drum-less ballad in the vein of Imogen Heap’s “Hide And Seek.” As if hiding in the shadows and yearning for an anonymity they can never have back, Smith emotes, “Can’t you see that all I wanna do/ Is get a little wild, get a little high/ Kiss a hundred boys and not feel like I’m tied to them.” A vision of excess presented in hushed reverence, “Young” is a striking piece of work, one that reminds me my initial enthusiasm about those velvety powerhouse vocals was amplified by the trembling slow jam “Not In That Way.” That one had me wondering if Smith might be the new Jeff Buckley, a virtuoso showboat capable of whipping from dramatic bellows to piercing high notes with an Olympic gymnast’s power and grace. The dance-pop format wasn’t the be-all-end all of their talents. It was less about adhering to a certain template and more about pairing that voice with songs that amplify its power without descending into cheese.
That becomes clear enough when “Young” gives way to “Diamonds,” one of the most overt dance-pop songs of Smith’s career. Produced by Oscar Görres and Shellback, the track is thumping bass-powered disco with a skip in its step, topped off by a hell of a zigzagging hook — so, theoretically, just what I want from Sam Smith. It doesn’t conjure that unchained “Latch” euphoria, though, because the musical and emotional appeal is swallowed up in manufactured smoothness. You know that radio-sanitized feeling native to artists like Maroon 5, where no matter how skillfully and authentically an artist is communicating, it ends up sounding like Muzak? This constantly befalls Smith on Love Goes, as it did on previous albums In The Lonely Hour and The Thrill Of It All.
The internal cross-purposes that hinder Smith’s music can be illustrated by “Dancing With A Stranger,” last year’s crisp Normani dance duet, which reappears as a bonus track on Love Goes. That song can’t decide if it wants to be a banger or an easy listening mirage, so even when you get swept up in its flow, it’s hard to work up too much excitement about it. That same tension between the impulse to make grocery store filler music and raw-nerved confessionals has been thwarting Smith’s music from the beginning, but it becomes especially apparent on an album powered by genuine devastation like this one. Smith originally intended to release Love Goes back in the spring under the name To Die For. When a pandemic began killing people by the thousands around the world, that title went out the window, and Smith went back into the studio to record more songs. But in either permutation it would be a breakup album, informed by what Smith calls their first real heartbreak.
When the production lets us feel anything along with Smith, Love Goes works pretty well. The rippling and propulsive minor-key club track “Dance (‘Til You Love Someone Else)” lets its throbbing low-end pulse take control, creating a dark wonderland for Smith’s voice to careen around in. The moodily upbeat synth ballad “Another One” teems with the specific pain of a lover moving on to someone new, while “Breaking Hearts,” built from little more than piano and finger snaps by longtime collaborator Jimmy Napes, beams with residual warmth despite the prevailing sense of yearning. “Why’d I let you in my heart?” Smith sings with palpable fragility. “‘Cause now it’s busy breaking.” On the title track, Labrinth creates as grand a finale as Smith could hope for, building a meditative piano riff in the vein of Aphex Twin’s “Avril 14th” up to a horns/strings/drums triumphal procession, like “All Of The Lights” with its guts hollowed out. “That’s how love goes,” Smith concedes, their voice spinning the last syllable into a melody that flutters right along with the piano loop.
If Smith messed around with inventive arrangements like this more often, they might come away with an album worthy of their vocal splendor. Unfortunately their music more often aims for timeless and ends up with basic. Burna Boy’s presence is the only sign of life on the bleak, greyscale “My Oasis,” while the string-laden “For The Lover That I Lost” is as boilerplate as breakup laments come. It all wraps up with “Kids Again,” a breathy acoustic number helmed by Post Malone associates Watt and Lewis Bell that could use a dose of Posty’s digitized yodel to liven things up. “Can’t believe I still avoid the East Side,” Smith sings, “Even though I know that you don’t live there now.” They’re feeling wistful, unwilling to let go of the pain lest the good memories vanish too. It’s a powerful song in theory, but the Hallmark production ensures that in practice it’s beige, bloodless shlock. “We’ll never be kids again,” Smith laments, their hope for reconciliation evaporating along with the prospect of a return to the boundless potential of their youth. It’s as fitting a metaphor for Smith’s discography as you’ll find.
Ariana Grande’s Positions won’t impact the album charts until next week, but its title track debuts at #1 on the Hot 100 this week. It’s her third #1 song of 2020 and fifth overall since first topping the chart with “thank u, next” in late 2018. Remarkably, all five of her #1 singles have debuted atop the Hot 100. As Billboard points out, Justin Bieber, Mariah Carey, Drake and, Travis Scott each trail her with three #1 debuts apiece. Grande is also the first artist with three #1 debuts in the same year, and by landing them all within a span of five months and two weeks, she surpasses Travis Scott for the fastest accumulation of three #1 debuts. Expect the top 10 to be brimming with Positions tracks next week.
“Positions” means country star Luke Combs has to settle for a #2 debut with “Forever After All,” a track from the newly released deluxe edition of last year’s hit What You See Is What You Get. It’s still the country everyman’s highest-charting hit and first in the top 10, surpassing his #11 peak with last year’s “Even Though I’m Leaving.” It’s also the highest #1 debut ever for a male country artist, beating Garth Brooks’ #5 entry with “Lost In You” under his Chris Gaines persona. I guess the new wave of country artists really are figuring out how to make big-splash debuts.
This is also only the third time both #1 and #2 on the Hot 100 have been debuts. The last time it happened was with Adele’s “Hello” and Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” in November 2015. Before that it was a pair of American Idol contestants, Clay Aiken’s “This Is The Night” and Ruben Studdard’s “Flying Without Wings,” in 2003. The rest of this week’s top 10: 24kGoldn and Iann Dior’s “Mood” at #3, Drake and Lil Durk’s “Laugh Now, Cry Later” at #4, the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” at #5 (extending its record for most weeks in the top 5 to 31), Gabby Barrett and Charlie Puth’s “I Hope” at #6, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” at #7, Jawsh 685 and Jason Derulo’s “Savage Love (Laxed – Siren Beat)” at #8, Internet Money’s “Lemonade” featuring Gunna, Don Toliver, and NAV at a new #9 peak, and Bieber and Chance The Rapper’s “Holy” at #10.
Combs may have fallen short of #1 on the Hot 100, but with its freshly released deluxe edition, What You See Is What You Get tallied 109,000 equivalent units and 22,000 in sales to jump back from #21 to #1 on the Billboard 200. That total also includes 76,000 streaming equivalent albums, equating to 102.26 million on-demand track streams. As Billboard points out, that breaks Combs’ own record for the biggest streaming week for a country album, set last November when What You See Is What You Get initially dropped.
Combs’ big week means Bruce Springsteen’s Letter To You has to settle for a #2 debut with its 96,000 units and 92,000 in sales, despite being easily the week’s #1 album judging by pure sales. Of that total, 18,000 were sold on vinyl, the second biggest sales week for an album on vinyl this year behind Tame Impala’s The Slow Rush. Letter To You is Springsteen’s 21st album to reach the top 5, and he becomes the first artist with a top-5 album in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s, and 2020s.
After Pop Smoke at #3 comes Ty Dolla $ign’s Featuring Ty Dolla $ign at #4, debuting with 44,000 units and 4,000 in sales. It’s Ty$’s highest-charting album ever. The rest of the top 10: Juice WRLD, 21 Savage and Metro Boomin, Lil Baby, Hamilton, Machine Gun Kelly, and Harry Styles.
POP FIVE: CHRISTMAS EDITION
Carly Rae Jepsen – “It’s Not Christmas Till Somebody Cries”
Not the best CRJ track ever, but it won me over with a ca-chunking “The Way You Make Me Feel” bass groove, a squealing synth solo, and detailed scene-setting like “My boyfriend is a vegan so they fed him fish/ My uncle made it worse by talking politics.”
Sia – “Snowman”
Remember when “Chandelier” grabbed you and shook you and wouldn’t let you forget it? Would be nice if Sia’s Christmas song did that.
Jonas Brothers – “I Need You Christmas”
As explained in my annual Christmas roundup, holiday sentimental schlock is much more palatable to me than everyday sentimental schlock, so this tasteful JoBros Christmas ballad is hitting the spot.
Kelly Clarkson & Brett Elderege – “Under The Mistletoe”
Upbeat holiday schlock is also tolerable when the arrangement is this cheery and somebody with pipes like Kelly Clarkson is cutting loose over it.
Liam Payne & Dixie D’Amelio – “Naughty List”
Even I, the unapologetic Christmas music fan, must draw the line somewhere, and it appears that somewhere is the syncopated pop song about Santa putting two illicit sex partners on the naughty list.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- People’s sources confirm the rumored romance between Adele and Skepta. [People]
- However, Adele says she’s single. [TMZ]
- Cardi B officially called off her divorce from Offset. [TMZ]
- Cardi also won Footwear News’ Style Influencer Of The Year at the 34th annual FN Achievement Awards. [Footwear News]
- Congressman Eric Swalwell used Taylor Swift’s Miss Americana protest song “Only The Young” in a campaign spot. It’s the first time Taylor Swift has allowed her music in a political ad. [The Hill]
- A 13-year-old fan learned that Harry Styles dropped by her house while she wasn’t there. Styles’ car broke down and the fan’s dad reportedly let the pop star hang out while he waited for a ride. (He fed her fish and left her a signed CD.) [Capital FM]
- In related news, if he could vote in America, Harry Styles would vote for Joe Biden. [Twitter]
- Presumably so would (will?) Eminem, who lent “Lose Yourself” to a Biden campaign spot, his first time licensing a song for a political ad. [USA Today]
- Nikki McKibbin, who finished third on the first season of American Idol, has died from a brain aneurysm at age 42. [Variety]
- Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton got engaged. [Instagram]
- Bad Bunny stars in a new Cheetos campaign. [Ad Age]
- 24kGoldn and Iann Dior did their #1 hit “Mood” on Kimmel. [YouTube]
- DaBaby and 2 Chainz appear on a remix of Kanye West’s “Nah Nah Nah.” [Twitter]
- iHeartRadio’s virtual Jingle Ball goes down 12/10 with Billie Eilish, Doja Cat, Dua Lipa, Harry Styles, Lewis Capaldi, Sam Smith, Shawn Mendes, and more. [iHeart]
- Ryan Phillippe and Reese Witherspoon’s son Deacon released a new EDM song written by Kelsea Ballerini and featuring TikTok star Loren Gray. [YouTube]
- “Baby Shark” has surpassed “Despacito” to become the most-viewed YouTube video of all time. [Billboard]
- Liam Payne covered 5 Seconds Of Summer’s “Youngblood” in a pirate costume. [Twitter]
- Halsey got a head tattoo. [Twitter]