Sam Smith at the BBC, review: 'He sounded like a drowning gannet'

Mark Beaumont
Not so much nu soul as flu soul: Sam Smith played his new material at the BBC studios - WARNING: Use of this copyright image is subject to the terms of use of BBC Pictures' Digital Picture

“Vocally, it’s impossible,” said a disembodied voice through the studio PA, swearing like a docker somewhere offstage. Like The Naked Gun’s Frank Drebin loudly visiting the bathroom during a televised press conference, Sam Smith forgot to turn his radio mic off between songs while recording Sam Smith at the BBC, part of a series of TV specials celebrating today’s most successful singers – Michal Bublé, Harry Styles (airing November 2) and, most notably, in 2015, Adele

Sadly this minor diva moment was the closest Smith came to recreating the magic of Adele’s broadcast. He snaps at her heels on paper, with 12 million sales of his 2014 debut album In the Lonely Hour and four Grammys under his belt, but vocally he is to Adele as Claudia Winkleman is to Davina McCall: a try-hard fallback option. He sings his radio-honed soul paeans as though he lost a Tiddlywink up both nostrils as a toddler, or someone’s permanently holding a pillow to his face. When he wailed “I’m suffocating” over the swelling soul of his Oscar-winning Bond theme Writing’s on the Wall, the first of 13 live songs, it was a miracle that no one called St John’s Ambulance.

Not so much nu soul as flu soul, then, as Smith, accompanied by strings, performed beneath Golden Age cinema drapes. Off-the-shelf soul chaff such as I’m Not the Only One and the blindingly beige Stay With Me simply didn’t warrant the bombast, the latter proving that you can win a Grammy simply by slowing down Tom Petty’s I Won’t Back Down.

Fearne Cotton and Sam Smith

As Lay Me Down began resembling a West End ballad sung by a lonely mongoose, Smith’s core dilemma emerged. His honesty and authenticity clash with his vocal affectations. Telling Fearne Cotton about his (clearly successful) diet regime, the fresh heartbreak that inspired his forthcoming second album The Thrill of It All and the between-album year he spent either “partying hard” or “sitting in my pants eating Nando’s”, Smith was frank and charming and his heartfelt lyrics, clearly not clacked out by any Trite Boyband Platitude Generator, are deeply relatable, open diaries of devastating break-ups and one-sided affairs. His vulnerability is endearing; unfortunately the sentiment of tunes such as Burning was dampened by such clog-nosed falsettos that we wondered if, somewhere backstage, a mic’d-up gannet was drowning.

Smith

New songs Midnight Train, a gospel ode to Iraq called Pray and Motown throwback One Last Song – a final kiss-off to the ex who inspired In the Lonely Hour – were slick and Jo Whiley-ready but, stripped of the album’s occasional hip-hop beat, exhibited little substance and zero progression. At times, you could almost hear the music industry cogs being ruthlessly cranked. Smith did have his moments – accompanied by just cello and guitar, Leave Your Lover proved a touching country frippery, latest single Too Good at Goodbyes was moving stuff, and the crowd were teased to their feet for a rousing Like I Can. Just don’t tune in expecting many of the album title’s advertised thrills.

Sam Smith at the BBC will air on November 9