Sam Smith’s Sugary Loneliness and the Choir Effect

Thomas A. Dorsey, the father of American gospel music, introduced
ecstasy to old religious arrangements in escalating, yearning choruses.
His creation, the gospel choir, and its essential juxtaposition of eros
and propriety, arguably prefigured the invention of pop. The sound of a
choir—whether American gospel, classical, or children’s—has a
transformative effect on a pop song, imparting solemnity, tumult,
flamboyance, or even eeriness to an otherwise basic arrangement. The
British particularly like the embellishment—think of Queen’s “Somebody
to Love,” Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is,” The Rolling Stones’
“You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” George Michael’s “Father Figure,”
or David Bowie’s “Young Americans.”

The amplification of a singular voice with many robust black-sounding
ones began as an American tradition, but for decades has been
incorporated into pop songs to convey over-the-top epicness. Madonna
solicited a gospel choir, led by Andraé Crouch, for the chorus and riffs
on “Like a Prayer.” In the song, the group picks up for more than a
minute once Madonna has finished her last run, owning the song’s rapture
as a solo singer never could. The inclusion of a booming gospel chorus
is by now a pop-music cliché, and yet its subliminal provocation
endures; the visual of a white act surrounded by hardworking black
singers is enough to make one reach for Norman Mailer’s “The White
Negro.” Adele performs in the same formation constantly, but one of my
favorite instances is from a video of Nick Jonas, gregariously singing a
“gospel version” of “Jealous” at
Westfield’s shopping
center in London.

Sam Smith, a twenty-five-year-old torch singer for the sub-tweet
generation, has made particularly generous use of the choir effect; his
hermetic interest in his own loneliness seems always to be accompanied
by a rush of harmonized voices. Smith’s brand of schmaltz is mechanical
and lucrative. There he is, baby blues brooding behind a trendy, tapered
haircut, on the black-and-white cover of his début, “In the Lonely
Hour,” which brought him four Grammys. Half of the album’s ten songs
have had some choral decoration slapped onto them. The sugary climax of
“Like I Can,” a song about insecurity masquerading as self-satisfaction,
is assisted by a vocal swell; by the time “I’m Not the Only One” reaches
its chorus, it’s audibly clear that Smith is not the only one.

In 2014, Smith’s “Stay with Me” cemented the global fascination with the
Londoner gifted with family wealth and a silvery falsetto. That song’s
soaring gospel chorus is a production choice that music critics,
generally, have been suspicious of, and which listeners have loved. At
Pitchfork, Andrew Ryce memorably
dissed the arrangement, writing that, “unfortunately, a hammy choir over-emotes
all over his delicate late-night vulnerability, taking Smith’s raw
honesty and overcooking it to a grey pallor.” In fact, as Smith and his
collaborator, James Napier, a.k.a. Jimmy Napes, revealed, they had
manufactured choral multiplicity by recording Smith over and over again,
and stacking the vocals. The technique itself is standard for the
creation of, say, three-part harmonies, but in the case of Smith’s false
choir the result is almost uncanny.

There is something ingenious yet irreducibly strange about the
ventriloquizing of a gospel choir by a white British man who grew up, as
he says, “obsessed” with soul music. (For contrast, consider D’Angelo’s
“artful use of overdubs” on “Black Messiah,” which, according to Dan
summons memories of Prince and Marvin Gaye.) Sam Smith’s new single from his
forthcoming second album, “Too Good at Goodbyes,” is similarly
perplexing. It is his first single since “Writing’s on the Wall,” from
2015, the sedate James Bond theme that Smith and Napes wrote in twenty
minutes, for “Spectre.” “Too Good” retreads the romantic rejection that
inspired “In the Lonely Hour,” which was conceived as a letter to a
straight man who didn’t requite Smith’s affections. In “Too Good,” Smith
returns to this phantasmic “You”: “You must think that I’m stupid / You
must think that I’m a fool,” he warbles—his gorgeous, exotic tenor
finding genuine-sounding emotion in boilerplate self-flagellation.
Formally, the elements are familiar, too: the soft piano opening, the
finger-snapping, and, after the refrain, the choir, sailing in on its
own ceremonious, overly stylized wind.

On my twentieth or so listen, I began to suspect that the track might
have used the same choir effect as that of “Stay with Me”; it’s all too
easy to imagine, when hearing the ostentatious chorus, a long line of
digitally rendered Smiths, each mirroring the other’s breakup anguish,
in slightly graduated registers. Live, however, Smith cannot be a dozen
versions of himself. In past performances, he has stood stiffly before a
chorus of predominantly black backup singers, dressed and choreographed
like a gospel choir. At the 2015 Grammys, his major introduction to the
American institutional stage, a nervous Smith and Mary J. Blige—who
emoted generously next to him—were flanked by more than a dozen singers.
At such moments, his lovelorn vocal twirls become almost entirely
overwhelmed by the force that is swaying and snapping behind him.