Sam Smith - In the Lonely Hour

A perfect encapsulation of the darkness that comes when love is gone.

Additional Info

7.6

ALBUM: In the Lonely Hour

ARTIST: Sam Smith

2014

Pop

Love is by far the most popular topic in songwriting. It’s present in every genre, and experienced in different ways by everyone. As a subset, heartbreak is a globally relatable notion, as well, turning love into a positive and a negative. The powerful clasp of emotion surrounding love is no novel experience, but few are familiar with the components which create this insane surge of feelings. Sure, love may be a battlefield, it’s blind, and knows no bounds, but what makes it such an intense experience? Psychologist Robert J. Sternberg published an article in the 1986 Psychological Review entitled, “A Triangular Theory of Love,” and this theory is still very relevant in the love discussion today. Sternberg proposed that love comes in three components. Intimacy, the top vertex of the triangle, is reflected in one’s closeness and feeling of connection with one’s partner. Passion, falling at the left point of the triangle, is often confused for intimacy; it reflects the physical passion and fire felt during attraction. The third component taking up the right vertex is commitment, or trust, that the person you love speaks and acts in earnest and returns your desire to stay connected. If this holds true, then love is a physical, emotional, and cognitive process. Sternberg writes:

Love is a complex whole that appears to derive in part from genetically transmitted instincts and drives but probably in larger part from socially learned role modeling that, through observation, comes to be defined as love. To a large extent, then, love is prototypically organized.

This psychologist establishes that the forces behind romance and love are both in and out of control, and society’s perpetuation of love, through television, media, etc. molds a person’s reaction to this emotion. A chick-flick, therefore, predisposes women to feel clingy and play dumb when under the trance of love, as does the Mattel-inspired Barbie and Ken dynamic.The common adages “love-sick” and “addicted to love” perpetuate the notion that this connection can make one crazy. This has been proven true, with a slew of scientific evidence backing it up.

At the beginning of a relationship, many experience the “honeymoon stage,” and this is not just a societal convention. Dopamine, oxytocin, and elevated levels of estrogen and testosterone are released during this time, mustering feelings of intense euphoria which are then linked to the partner. Professor of Psychology Albert Wakin has coined a condition “Limerence,” which makes this “honeymoon stage” last forever, but it’s not as pleasant as one might think. “However, those who suffer from Limerence are permanently trapped in this stage of euphoria and their cognitions and behaviors become obsessive and compulsive. […] Those who are impacted can enter treatment involving cognitive behavioral therapy as well as take antidepressants, which inhibits the part of the brain that is responsible for obsessive thoughts.” According to Wakin’s research, love can become an obsessive compulsive disorder, but also a physical ailment, where “intrusive thoughts about the limerent object (LO) appear to be genetically driven” which can become devastating for the patient’s life.

One might think if an artist produced an entire album about one person, one friend, not even a romantic lover, that the artist might have a case of obsessive compulsive love, or Limerence. Young British singer-songwriter Sam Smith did just this, creating In the Lonely Hour, a title hinting at the darkness that befalls unrequited love. The details are few and far between, but Smith has told the media he was deeply love-struck last year by a single unrealized affection for a close friend. Smith told Fader Magazine:

I’ve never been in a relationship before. I’ve only been in unrequited relationships where people haven’t loved me back. I guess I’m a little bit attracted to that in a bad way. In the Lonely Hour is about a guy that I fell in love with last year, and he didn’t love me back. I think I’m over it now, but I was in a very dark place. I kept feeling lonely in the fact that I hadn’t felt love before. I’ve felt the bad things. And what’s a more powerful emotion: pain or happiness?

The dark place Smith fell into after his profession of love mirrors the wrenching loss of dopamine and oxytocin which follow a breakup, because the trifecta of intimacy, passion and commitment is broken. In the Lonely Hour details to a tee the list of symptoms associated with Limerence. The tracks within Smith’s debut album remain depressed and lamenting as a whole, but a few moments in “Restart” and “Leave Your Lover” lead the listener to notice glimmers of hope coming from Smith. “You keep coming back for me when you're the one who tore us apart/ And the truth is I'm better on my own/ And I'm the one to leave it apart” sounds immensely different from the scene painted in “Stay With Me.” This sharp reaction in the album that changes Smith’s tone and perspective can be explained through a few Limerence symptoms: “Strong, persistent, enduring yearning for reciprocation from LO. […] Feelings of ecstasy are intensified with signs of reciprocation by LO.” The title of the album itself describes the bout of depression that Smith endured, stemming from, “Distractibility to the point where relationships and responsibilities are compromised. Persistent, exaggerated positive or negative interpretations of LO’s cues,” can describe the sharp shift in emotion in “Restart.”

Thankfully, Smith acknowledged the dark hour he suffered through and harnessed his musical talent as a form of coping. He told Fader Magazine that his Limerence Object, or the subject of the album, is aware that In the Lonely Hour was written about him:

But it was good as a form of closure, to get it off my chest and tell him. I feel better for it. I feel almost like I signed off this part of my life where I keep giving myself to guys who are never going to love me back. It feels good to have interviews like this, to chat about it and put stuff to bed. It’s all there now, and I can move on and hopefully find a guy who can love me the way I love him.

Smith’s mature realization on his bout with love is reassuring in that he has coped with it, but the album’s release definitely piques suspicion of love OCD. Nonetheless, Smith’s breakthrough into the high profile music scene was a huge leap. He trained for endless hours in his childhood, and allegedly cost his mother her job, so that he could become the star the Smith’s envisioned him to be. In the Lonely Hour is also an important marker in the battle against discrimination. New York daily news wrote, “No other out gay person has entered the U.S. marketplace for the first time with so much commercial juice behind them, including Frank Ocean.[…] His focus on songs of unfulfillable love recall the sad gay love ballads of the pre-liberation era.” Though the album isn’t a classic for the ages, it does have a solid, consistent sound, and plays with unusual conventions like obsession and gay love, keeping the content edgy and fresh.

“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.”

1. Money On My Mind
Smith’s romantically inclined album eases into the broken-hearted saga with a simple explanation of why he’s passionate to enter the music scene. Opening the album with a song detailing his first thoughts of fame reassures the listener. He’s giving them a proper introduction. At risk for sounding ungrateful for his blossoming fame, he begins the second stanza: “Please don't get me wrong/ I wanna keep it moving/ I know what that requires/ I’m not foolish/ Please, can you make this work for me?/ Cause I'm not a puppet, I will work against your strings.” Packaged with catchy R&B flair, Smith brings his fans up close and personal to the inner workings of his mind, ensuring that they know of his artistically pure intentions. His barefaced, repetitive songwriting is cushioned by the upbeat rhythms edging on Jazzstep.8.0
2. Good Thing
This track takes a giant leap away from all that is modern, opening with a swell of strings reminiscent of a 1940’s televised love scene. A sole guitar leads us into another bout of heartfelt songwriting, perhaps transposed from the inside of a heavyhearted diary. The line, “I had a dream I was mugged outside your house”, contrasts with the previous old-fashion flair. His point-blank references to unrequited love, “But life is never like this, and you're never strong”, sours the sweet sounding song, and it’s hard to fathom that such silky, smooth vocals are coming from a truly bruised and broken place. It is obvious that the story emanates from an actual relationship in Smith’s life. “We'd talk maybe 20 times a day”, allows for a glimpse at the depth of the complicated friendship that becomes the inspiration for In the Lonely Hour.7.8
3. Stay With Me
Smith’s most well-known track continues to populate the radio with raw emotion after it made an outstanding debut in the UK May 18th, and peaked at number 5 on American Billboard’s Top 100. “Stay With Me” is heavily influenced by gospel choirs, R&B, and overt emotions, in a style making him easily confused with John Legend or Robin Thicke. The dramatic, powerful vocal accompaniment elevates Smith’s old-school, syrupy serenade into a contemporary love-sick ballad. He admits, “This ain't love, it's clear to see/ But darling, stay with me”, again alluding to the relationship in “Good Thing.” He erases any hint of disillusionment, seeking a purely physical consolation because, “deep down I know this never works/ But you can lay with me so it doesn't hurt”. The quality of songwriting here makes for a much more catchy refrain than in the previous tracks, pushing Smith’s classic soulful sound into an accessible pop-song realm.8.5
4. Leave Your Lover
Following the powerhouse of emotion that is “Stay With Me,” this track takes up a calmer indie vibe that compensates for the repetitious subject matter. Smith’s falsetto vocals flutter so flawlessly up and down the scale, whatever he’s saying becomes almost irrelevant as the listener is captivated. Though delivered in a peaceful, quiet package, “Leave Your Lover” uses some of the most demanding and convincing language so far, with pleas like, “Pack up and leave everything,/ Don’t you see what I can bring/ Can’t keep this beating heart at bay/Set my midnight sorrow free,/ I will give you all of me/ Just leave your lover, leave him for me”. This song also craftily gives reference to Smith’s homosexual orientation, a topic left open for consideration in the previous tracks. Though Smith has made clear that he doesn’t want his album to revolve around the controversy of this matter, its success becomes an increasingly important benchmark in history, as he is a widely accepted and popular gay artist.7.8
5. I’m Not the Only One
Smith’s colorful R&B style returns with a hint of country energy infused in a piano accompaniment. His voice dips into a deeper range, and the content of the track is presented as gender-ambiguous and highly relatable. Moving away from his position as an unrequited lover, Smith now reminisces on the pain of falling out of love, through the painful admittance that, “when you call me baby/ I know I'm not the only one”. The track takes up the story at its beginning, with promises and vows, and moves through the slow disintegration of love: “For months on end I've had my doubts/ Denying every tear/ I wish this would be over now/ But I know that I still need you here”, leaving the listener wondering which is worse: unrequited love or a love built on lies?8.3
6. I’ve Told You Now
“I’ve Told You Now” parallels the painfully desperate hopelessness that hangs over the entire album like a heavy, grey storm cloud. A list of similes impacts the listener with escalating levels of depression: “It's like walking in the heat all day, with no water/ It’s like waiting for a friend/Watching everybody else meet theirs, on that corner/ Or losing in an argument/Although you're right, can't get your thoughts in order”. At this point the quality of songwriting has become a touch more clever than the mediocre lyrics of “Good Thing.” Unlike the previous tracks, the conversation here is between the two lovers, rather than a ballad from one side. In the utmost serious tone, Smith points a finger, throwing in the face of his counterpart, “You know me well/ I don't explain”, as if his own unwillingness to address the problem is at the fault of his lover.7.8
7. Like I Can
A strumming acoustic guitar elevates anticipation, delivering a much-needed bump in rhythm and pace to In the Lonely Hour. A vindictive and bitter Smith shows more promising songwriting, involving a preacher, a sinner, a lawyer, and a gentleman: “He could be a lawyer on a witness stand but/ He’ll never love you like I can, can”. The writing style shifts from mirroring the inside of a diary to a more pastoral perspective appealing to the “everyman.” Hearty, gospel power return in the chorus, which is possibly his catchiest yet: “Why are you looking down all the wrong roads/ When mine is the heart and the salt of the soul/ There may be lovers who hold out their hands but/ He’ll never love you like I can, can, can”. Echoing the sentiment in “Money on My Mind”, Smith reminds the listener of his sole purpose for the album: he does it for the love.8.3
8. Life Support
Though both vocal and rhythmic quality are solid, this track offers nothing new to the album, blending in with “Leave Your Lover” and “I’ve Told You Now.” Smith again subjects himself to a painful, sickly love, and the listener loses sympathy after repeatedly identifying with Smith’s heartbreak. “This is my world, this is my choice/ And you're the drug that gets me through”, allows addiction as a hint of explanation for his self-deprecating actions. It seems his dreamy, breathy voice is the drug that gets the audience through the track. Lost in devastation, Smith asks in contorted repetition, “Could you see that I am yours?” and the listener is quick to answer that yes, we get it, we see it. Eager with passion, Smith’s refrain “So will you be my life support?/ You’re my life support” begins to irritate. Whereas the previous tracks incorporate new angels on the same emotion, “Life Support” falls flat in monotony.5.0
9. Not In That Way
Within the initial 15 seconds, Smith’s vocal strength impresses as it careens around a high octave, reverberating without hesitation. The lyrics arise from previous the tedium of “Life Support,” harnessing the refreshingly blunt honesty that defines that album: “And I hate to say I want you/ When you make it so clear/ You don't want me”. Rather than relying on fatigued metaphors and similes to convey his feelings, Smith succeeds in songwriting when his lyrics come from the heart, mimicking a stream-of-consciousness diary entry. “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”, affects in its simplicity, as Smith admits through raw emotion that he hates being in love.8.2
10. Lay Me Down
Smith harness the old-school fashion that his voice naturally emits as he belts a romantic, waltz-like ballad. The song is derived from the heartbreak that spawned the album as a whole, but its lyrics present themselves only as an excuse to demonstrate the force and range in Smith’s delicately trained voice. Riff after riff, he glides along the scale without a hitch or a crack. Two minutes in, the song picks up a consistently, though extraordinarily slow, rhythm accentuated by the light tapping of a cymbal and a swelling orchestral accompaniment. In the third stanza before the song closes, Smith lets his powerhouse vocals rip, backed by an equally commanding chorus, and the track becomes slightly reminiscent of the crescendo in Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You.” A persistent cello joins in for the last minute and 10 seconds, an unexpected addition which may have supported the song better were it introduced earlier.7.0
Written by Shelby Tatomir
Reading and writing are my roots, making music, design, and photography sprouting branches of special interests that I am always striving to cultivate.



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