Sam Smith offered the briefest of explanations for his recent absence as he took the stage of the Troubadour Monday night for his first gig in nearly two years. “It was important for me to go away for a year and a half to be with my mum and be with my sisters,” the singer said. “I promise you the music has benefited from it.”
That was not an idle guarantee: The new songs Smith premiered at the L.A. club show stood up as superior even to the debut material that won him four Grammys back in early 2015. One of those, “Too Good at Goodbyes,” had already stormed the world in the four days between its release as a single and the Troubadour show, with fans who won the lottery to get into the gig not only affording the ballad the loudest sing-along of the evening but also knowing exactly when to come in with percussive finger snaps. The other four fresh tunes Smith unveiled — “Midnight Train,” “One Last Song,” “Burning,” and “Pray” — suggest that his Grammy hoarding may not have been just a freshman phenomenon.
But if he does earn another shelf full of trophies, it won’t be until the 2019 Grammys; Smith’s sophomore album will miss the cutoff date for the next ceremony. If you wondered if you missed the announcement for his full-length follow-up, you haven’t. Although a few tastemakers have heard the coming album, his label, Capitol, says it may be a month before Smith reveals a release date or even title for the new record, which may not land till Thanksgiving time, or after, giving pal Taylor Swift at least a little competition in owning the pop blockbuster of the holiday season.
Smith’s Troubadour gig was the first of four international club shows he’s doing, presumably to bang the drum slowly — very slowly, at first — among hardcore fans for that still mysteriously titled album. (The second, slated for Wednesday at New York’s tiny Mercury Lounge, reportedly received around 80,000 bids in the lottery on the singer’s website; subsequent shows will take place in London and Berlin.) The format was stripped down R&B, with no percussion other than those finger snaps and occasional tambourine shakes from one of three backup singers. Accompaniment sometimes consisted of solo bass or piano, with things really kicking into high gear, such as it was, when those instruments were joined by rhythm guitar and cello.
Remarkably, the songs from “In the Lonely Hour,” Smith’s debut, have never sounded better than they did in these super-sparse arrangements, which fans should hope will be preserved for some sort of future DVD or deluxe-edition bonus. Five songs from the debut were augmented in the not-quite hour-long set by “Latch” — the dance track he did with Disclosure, turned into a strictly-piano song here — and a cover of Alicia Keys’ “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart.” Smith cited the Keys tune as being among a selection of “throwback” tracks that “really got me through that time of my life” following a bad breakup, “after the dumping part and all that drama.”
And how much did that breakup affect the forthcoming album? Those who’ve heard it say it’s even more seeped in heartache than the first one. Yet Smith took pains during Monday’s set to establish that the sadness in the record is not all his. In writing this batch of lyrics, he said, “I tried to challenge myself to not make it about myself all the time.” “Midnight Train,” he added, was written “about someone very close to me. Their heart was broken, and mine was too. I hope it helped her.” That ballad is written from the point of view of a reluctant dumper, not dumpee: “I hate that I’ve caused you pain, but I can’t deny it, that I just don’t feel the same,” he sang.
Other new songs seemed to hit closer to home. “One Last Song” is in the great tradition of songs that take some comfort in getting the last word in a relationship, even if “I know you don’t want to talk to me,” by virtue of writing a final musical missive that the ex is bound to hear on the airwaves. Though it’s hardly a happy song at the core, the music’s jubilant, quasi-gospel feel guaranteed that “One Last Song” would be the most ecstatically received of the premieres.
Smith did allow that the new album has “three or four songs that are about me,” noting that “Burning,” among these, is “one of the most personal songs I’ve ever written in my life.” He said that after the breakup in question, he’d been suffering a six-week case of writer’s block, “which is a long time for me,” before “my amazing team forced me to go back into the studio,” resulting in a track that mixes smoking and blaze metaphors with “no insurance to pay for the damage.”
He returned to the tropes of gospel in an even more pronounced way with the forthcoming record’s climax, “Pray,” a statement of utter despair that moves from insinuations of atheism to proclaiming that “everyone prays in the end.” Talking about how admittedly dark the song is, Smith added, “I wrote it here in L.A.,” which the audience may or may not have taken as a compliment. He had to do without the gospel choir that joins him on the recorded version, but Smith is a veritable choir unto himself on this standout, as he turns just the repetition of the title word into an ear-boggling exercise in octave-spanning.
And then there was the obligatory “Stay With Me”… only, Smith wanted the audience to know there was nothing perfunctory about it. “The last time I played in this venue, this song hadn’t even come out yet,” he said, referring to a December 2013 stand at the Troubadour. “I thought by this time I’d be sick of singing this song — but I genuinely f—ing love it.”
No one could accuse him of having gotten the slightest bit lazy in the interim, time away or not. You’d be hard pressed to find signs of passivity either in Smith’s improved songwriting or how he runs that material through what is arguably the best set of male chops in the business right now. And, speaking of discipline, mention will inevitably be made of how Smith has transformed himself into a leaner, if not meaner, heartbreak machine, as thin now as he is tall; the singer looks more like a giant Chris Martin than he does the Sam Smith of 2013, which may come as a sleek shock to those who haven’t been tracking him the last couple of years. There’s less of him to love now, but also much, much more.