Sam Smith At Madison Square Garden, Saturday, June 30th, 2018, Reviewed
It is hard to remember now but back in the 1950s and 1960s homosexuality (by which I mean sexual and/or romantic attraction between members of the same sex) was considered at best a tragedy and at worse a perversion and mental illness punishable to prison or death. Everyone from Charles Hawtrey to Rock Hudson, Joe Orton to Tennessee Williams had their lives disfigured by being forced into the closet. Pride week is over but having clocked the LGBTQ friendly the Go Gos Broadway musical “Head Over Heels” yesterday afternoon (Helen Bach’s review here), I completed my personal Pride Day at Sam Smith’s Madison Square Garden concert.
Sam Smith is the openly game same sexer who broke pop in 2012 and became a male Adele singer of romantic angst. This all comes to mind because he opened his show mid T Bone stage sitting in a chair that popped up from below like Rodin’s “The Thinker” and for a moment I flashed back on centuries of societal angst that would have left the miserable Mr. Smith a poster boy for the price of being true to yourself. The moment past but not the mood and not the song. “Burning” has Sam heartbroken by his lover leaving him and doing what any right thinking man would do, taking smoking cigs back up. It is not a particularly good song but honestly the good songs off last year’s sophomore stinker The Thrill Of It All are few and far between, and with Sam looking like the poster boy for the horror of it all, I might be excused for considering him a shropshire lad ala a.e. houseman ala “The Invention Of Love” ala Stoppard’s “lost dog loves young man – dog young lost man loves, loves lost young man dog, you can’t beat Latin: shuffle the words to suit, the endings tell you which loves what, who’s young, who lost, if you can’t read Latin go home, you’ve missed it! You kissed the dog. After that day, everything else seemed futile and ridiculous.” And so that was Sam as Houseman though of course it wasn’t but the mood is all very boy loves dog…
Which leaves Smith in the uncomfortable position of wanting to sing sad and unhappy, and unhappily unhappy songs, and turning them into an upbeat arena show and he isn’t the man. Watching Sam skip right down the stage (and I am not being homophobic, I am being literal) another problem with Sam Smith as leading man becomes crystal clear: he can’t dance, he can’t in fact move. And really, he is beyond modern cliche up to including changing what in the 1970s was a spontaneous flicking f your bics to the tedious ritual of turning on your flashlight. Look, if you have to call a girl and ask her why she didn’t call you then her answer becomes irrelevant, and if you have to ask an audience to turn on their flashlights their turning on their flashlights is irrelevant. And as for that dumbass “I think you are gonna be even better than last night’s audience?” That trope is done to a turn.
The audience, middle class white Americans all, with more than a smattering Asians at the close as damn it sold out second night, lapped it up, singing along to one of his better songs (off the first album of course) “I’m Not The Only One,” screaming along to
You say I’m crazy
‘Cause you don’t think I know what you’ve done
But when you call me baby
I know I’m not the only one
So yeah, another heartbreaker but as long as the world feels it is right, and to be fair it is a terrific song off his debut album,and a smash hit for him, OK I’ll give him that one. And the James Bond theme that followed. Where his tender and burnished and hurt vocal raises itself like he is back in the choir at school before heading for London and a fast hard career after getting discovered by Disclosure on “Latch”. “Latch” made you think Sam was born for EDM verses where he was such a strong singer he could add depth to doodles. But, no, he went his own way and it worked out fine.
I saw Sam on his first tour (here) and wrote this knocking on four years ago: “Sam seemed to have no command of the stage as he wandered back and forth, no idea how to speak to the audience, he couldn’t tell a story and he couldn’t seem to make it a personal experience”. Then I saw him at Jingle Ball where he was both laid back and commanding for fifteen minutes, so much so that I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt, but he is an unforgivable boring presence over any length of time. For 90 minutes I was not sold, even as Helen Bach, who had never seen him before, thought he had command of the stage and the entire 100s at MSG stood from start to finish.
The voice, yes I know the voice. But those songs… all very lost dog kills young man.