There’s a new viral video making the rounds featuring British R&B supernova Sam Smith performing a slowed-down live cover of Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know.” Smith’s version is a funeral dirge, slow and inconsolably sad. He isn’t reinventing this once-joyous song; he’s sifting through its wreckage. The video is a revelation — Smith’s voice is an increasingly supple and wondrous instrument — and also a mistake. Some songs weren’t meant to be sad.
Smith’s debut album, “In the Lonely Hour,” dropped last week; “x,” the likely star-making release from countryman Ed Sheeran, follows this week. Both men are earnest British upstarts with soul-singer voices and a fair amount of stateside buzz. Both have made thoroughly decent, deeply mild albums about navigating fame and love in their early 20s.
“In the Lonely Hour” shows off every facet of Smith’s voice to goose-pimple-raising effect, but it resembles one of those anodyne, anonymous debut discs “American Idol” winners used to make.
Smith was signed to a major-
label deal partly on the strength of “Latch,” a garage-pop club-turned-mainstream hit for Disclosure. He co-wrote the song and supplied vocals. “Lonely Hour,” an unofficial concept album about unrequited love, is more interested in middle-of-the-road balladry and over-the-top big drama signifiers than in even modestly adventurous pop songs. (This is an album that, when contemplating the use of a gospel choir, asks why not two gospel choirs.)
It’s impossible not to be moved by Smith’s breathy, quavery voice, which functions as one of nature’s purest torture-delivery devices. It’s also impossible not to want something more from him — and for him — than this tragically pretty collection, which offers several moments of great beauty (the technicolor weepiness of “Stay With Me,” “Good Thing”) and too many interchangeable ballads.
Smith, 22, has been telling interviewers that he hasn’t been involved in an actual romantic relationship, which would explain why “In the Lonely Hour” relies on falsettos, “Psycho” shower scene violins and gospel choirs to evoke a depth of feeling that, at least on some subterranean level, feels unearned.
The most convincing track is the opener, “Money on My Mind,” an uncharacteristically synth-heavy pop song that seems engineered to sound great coming out of a minivan. It’s about Smith’s record deal. “Please, can you make this work for me?” Smith asks an anonymous record-label person. “I’m not a puppet / I will work against your strings.” Smith is far too mild to convincingly rage against the machine, but it’s heartening to see him push, however politely, at the outer reaches of his sound.
Sheeran does much the same thing on his inescapable new hit “Sing,” a collaboration with the equally inescapable Pharrell. “Sing” takes almost all the sounds Sheeran occasionally dabbles in — folk, soul, scaled-down hip-hop rhythms, sing-talking really fast over a beat — and tackles them all at once. Sheeran’s love of rapping previously made its presence known in awkward ways, sometimes in the middle of proper folk songs — as if he wanted to be Damien Rice but decided halfway through to settle for Jason Mraz. But everything on “x” is more accomplished, more assured and interesting than on Sheeran’s full-length 2011 debut, “+.”
Sheeran was a successful singer-songwriter following that album’s release, before he was all but adopted by Taylor Swift the next year. He co-wrote and sang on her hit “Everything Has Changed,” and she later took him on tour as an opening act.
Sheeran, 23, travels much of the same territory as Smith — isolation, unrequited love, the generalized angst of early adulthood — but if “Lonely Hour” is the work of an emotional savant, “x” (meaning “multiply”) feels more like the work of a skillful careerist. Sheeran’s real life (he’s a well-connected striver, no offense intended, who once lived in Courteney Cox’s Malibu beach house) almost has to be more exciting than the life of the fake Ed Sheeran who lives in the songs of “x,” someone who likes to sit on the couch and get wasted when he isn’t out on the road making bad romantic choices.
“X” paints a portrait of an Everyman so patient and sensitive that he makes the singer-songwriters of the ’70s seem like war criminals. He will love you desperately forever. Unless you just want to be friends, in which case he will counsel you on body image (don’t freak out because you’re fat, he advises the titular “Nina”: “We can all be loved the way that God made us”) and watch YouTube cat videos with you.
Even when Sheeran gets mad, he’s not really mad, just disappointed (“I wasn’t looking for a promise or commitment / But it was never just fun and I thought you were different,” Sheeran tells a faithless ex who is possibly Ellie Goulding on the slinky, Timberlake-ian “Don’t”).
On “x,” everything hits just right. He knows just how far to push his ballads, which have a natural inclination toward mush: “Tenerife Sea” is lush and gorgeous, its vocals stacked to the heavens. The delicate guitar ballad “Thinking Out Loud” is a blatant and mercilessly effective bid for “I’ll Be”-style wedding-song immortality (“Honey, your soul can never grow old / It’s evergreen”).
Sheeran grounds his guy-next-door devotionals in enough practical detail — someone’s always hung over or lost or eating pizza — to make them seem hyperreal. Smith’s tales of woe are more unformed, almost aspirational, as if plucked from his “romantic misery” Pinterest board. They’re not fantasies, exactly, just heartbreaks that haven’t happened yet.