Sam Smith is the best new artist of 2014.
Yes, it’s only March and Smith has yet to release an album. But that said, there’s a reason that so many fans are heralding the 21-year-old English singer/songwriter as “the male Adele” across the web. For starters, Smith is the recipient of the BBC’s Sound of 2014 poll and the BRIT Critics’ Choice Award, both of which Adele won in 2008 before collecting her first Grammy a year later. And with the support of Adele herself, it looks like Smith might be starting down the same path as the global superstar. Accolades aside, it’s Smith’s larger-than-life talent – from his passionate and soulful vocal delivery to his introspective and vulnerable lyrics – that accounts for the biggest connection between the two artists.
In the UK, Smith got his first taste of success last year when he was the featured vocalist on hits like Disclosure’s “Latch” and Naughty Boy’s “La La La.” Last month, Smith’s debut solo single, “Money On My Mind,” went straight to #1 on the BBC charts – around the same time that Taylor Swift invited him to join her onstage at one of her London shows to perform the song together. And this weekend, Smith dropped jaws (and, let’s be honest, probably some panties) stateside when he performed as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live opposite host Louis C.K last night.
On Monday, Smith’s mostly sold-out U.S. headlining tour came to New York City’s Webster Hall. Following an exquisite opening set by Dev Hynes (a.k.a Blood Orange), Smith kicked off his show with “Nirvana,” the first of 13 tracks that he would sing. The title track off his first EP (released this past January), “Nirvana” instantly demonstrated that Smith’s massive pipes are far from limited to just his recordings. With a voice so good that it might as well have been made out of truffle butter, Smith effortlessly staked his claim as the future king of contemporary neo-soul.
Throughout the evening, Smith performed various tracks from his upcoming album, In The Lonely Hour (due out on May 26 in the UK and June 17 in the U.S.). But the fact that the fervent crowd was hearing many of these songs for the very first time didn’t stop them from having a fully immersive concert experience.
It was hard to spot a dry eye following “Not In That Way,” Smith’s raw, heart-wrenching tribute to unrequited love. It’s a theme that he admitted will be featured heavily on his album, despite the fact that he’s never actually be in a relationship (no wonder T. Swift tried to sink her fangs in early).
“And I hate to say that I love you when it’s so hard for me, and I hate to say I want you when you make it so clear you don’t want me,” Smith achingly crooned over a melancholy acoustic guitar. “I’d never ask you ‘cause deep down I’m certain I know what you’d say. You’d say, I’m sorry, believe me, I love you, but not in that way.”
Considering his album’s title, it’s no surprise that thus far Smith’s repertoire is full of songs that cut deep. The ballad “Leave Your Lover” found the singer lamenting over the object of his affection loving somebody else, while “I’m Not The Only One” detailed the agonizing feeling of not being able to let someone go despite the reality that you can’t trust their fidelity. As his soaring voice penetrated through the otherwise completely silent venue, his performances of both of these songs left the audience breathless.
But it was far from an entirely somber night. The infectious and upbeat “Restart” perfectly blended Smith’s disco influences with elements of uptempo 90’s R&B, and subsequently left the crowd trading in their tear-stained tissues for dancing shoes. Meanwhile, his cover of The Arctic Monkey’s “Do I Wanna Know” exhibited the singer’s grungier side as he went into full rock star mode, raspy wails and all.
Of course it wasn’t just previously unreleased material that Smith performed. After announcing that the next song would be “Money On My Mind,” there was so much screaming that you’d be shocked to learn that the song is not already a monster smash this side of the Atlantic. He followed immediately with “Lay Me Down,” the phenomenal buzz track he released last year, which he believes is the one that truly changed his life. Smith explained that just over a year ago, he was working at a bar. After that song came out, the rest is already history.
Additional highlights of Smith’s set included a solo rendering of his recent funky snyth-meets-disco collaboration with Nile Rodgers, Disclosure, and Jimmy Napes, “Together,” as well as an audience participation heavy rendition of “La La La.” He brought the pace down again when singing the slow-burning “I’ve Told You Now,” and a stunningly beautiful acoustic version of “Latch,” which highlighted the lyrics’ desperation in ways that the electronic original doesn’t have the room to.
Smith closed out his encore with “Stay With Me,” a track which went on to receive its official radio premiere the following day on BBC Radio 1 (and music video premiere this past Thursday). DJ Zane Lowe described the song as “a classic” before hitting the play button, and ended up spinning the song twice because he loved it so much (“the world needs this record,” he explained). And Lowe was far from mistaken.
An ode to wanting to turn a one night stand into something more meaningful, “Stay With Me” is the official second single from In The Lonely Hour. Smith’s golden voice soulfully builds before it’s joined (but far from overshadowed) by a grand gospel choir. Similarly, the minimal piano melody gradually adds in strings, an organ, and percussion, resulting in a song that gives puts a fresh and contemporary spin on its clear Motown influences.
With only a few months to go before his highly anticipated album finally drops, Sam Smith is continuing to build momentum and fuel the hype with his phenomenal live performances, new song releases, and teases at what’s to come. He’s already garnered international acclaim and begun to build a rabid fan base, and based on what he played at Webster Hall on Monday night, it’s all leading up to what can (and should!) very likely be one of the biggest records of the year.
If you can, grab your tickets to see Smith on the rest of his tour now. Otherwise, you’ll regret it when he’s collecting awards on the Grammy stage and selling out arenas this time next year.