This time last year Sam Smith was on stage supporting Emeli Sande at the Hammersmith Apollo.
A year on and he's the headlining act with a mantelpiece that must be running out of space for his growing awards collection.
He is inescapable whether you're into pop music or not and the recognition isn't undeserved. Now aged 22, Smith won the 2014 Brits Critics Choice Award; he swept the floor at this year's Mobos winning four awards, including Best Male and Best Album, and he broke US sales records with album In The Lonely Hour, selling 166,000 copies in its first week of release, the most sold in the first week by a UK male artist's debut album. It must be dizzying for the London-born singer who only two years ago was making “terrible music” in a bid to be Lady Gaga and Beyoncé.
At his Hammersmith Apollo gig, one of his biggest to date, bar his Glastonbury performance, his falsetto voice sounded as richly soulful as ever, seamlessly jumping octaves to demonstrate his enviable range. His vocals will be remembered as part of the canon of British blue-eyed soul, filed alongside Dusty Springfield and Cilla Black - who all sang with sincerity and emotion about heartbreak. Smith has an old-fashioned quality, his voice is reliably strong and he animatedly interacts with the audience like someone who just can't believe he is where he is.
Ballads are his signature and unrequited love his subject matter of choice. He's never been in a committed relationship or even had a proper break-up, but having not been through either has served him with plenty of anguish to convincingly sing about. “Lay Me Down” was painfully raw and performed with impressive vulnerability and “I'm Not The Only One” soulfully expressed the agonising knowing of a non-exclusive relationship. His slowed cover of Whitney Houston's “How Will I Know” added insight into a track that is actually about tormented one-sided love, while “Stay With Me” served as a powerful, affecting finale. His band were a fitting accompaniment, gaging when to bring in a rockier edge and when to do body rolls like Sixties divas.
Smith has been frequently compared to Adele (they were both scouted in the same London pub and use failed relationships as their musical focus) but one noticeable difference is that, unlike Adele and other soul greats, he is yet to arrive at a point where he incorporates defiance into his tales of heartbreak. There is an optimism in telling an ex that they're not worth it; that there's a life beyond the initial sadness, and, musically, it's a sentiment that breaks patterns. While there's no doubting Smith's vocal strength, what he still lacks is an emotional strength, a power of conviction that hopefully he will develop in albums to come. The audience was given a glimpse of it in “Like I Can”, but it's an area the singer hasn't yet conquered.
Pleasingly, we are yet to see the full power of Sam Smith.Reuse content