You Should Know: Sam Smith (Nirvana EP Review)

Sam-Smith-Nirvana

Sam Smith – Nirvana EP
Rating: 87/100

The moment for Sam Smith’s arrival is imminent.

The zeitgeist of pop music is an unpredictable pendulum constantly swinging from extreme to another. EDM has been on the rise for years but the tipping point is approaching. Pop music’s mood swings can be hard to forecast but after a deep plunge into the shimmering realm of electronic music there are signs of a return to a more organically human sound. The greatest minds in pop have rejected the drum machines, samples, and synths of EDM in favor of retro R&B sounds and though their resurgence in pop culture has been warmly welcomed (if not long overdue), Justin Timberlake and Pharrell aren’t the only ones steering the pop ship in a different direction. Some of electronic music’s biggest (Avicii) and best (Daft Punk) have successfully found a home for natural vocals and instrumentation in their particular corners of the pop soundscape. Consider also that R&B/Soul music has inched its way back towards the center with critically acclaimed and commercially viable R&B acts like Frank Ocean, Miguel, and you know, Beyonce. Pop culture is primed for a distinctive new voice and it might just be Sam Smith.

It seems symbolic that Sam Smith first gained exposure with his stunning vocal performance on Disclosure’s hit “Latch” which combines elements of EDM, R&B, and soul. The song is unique bridge between to drastically different but suddenly cohesive musical styles. Earlier this year Smith released his debut Nirvana EP which is vibrant blend of stripped down vocally driven ballads and electro-soul songs that above all showcase Smith’s imagination as a vocalist and songwriter. Though released last October in the UK, the EP didn’t hit US soil until late January 2014 and for weeks I found myself surprised, captivated and entirely obsessed with this little collection of songs. Among them is a stripped down piano driven version of the previously mentioned “Latch” that removes all of the EDM elements of the original and places the spotlight solely on Smith’s vocal melodies. Despite picking the Disclosure version as one of my favorite tracks of 2013, I honestly don’t know which version I prefer. The EP’s gorgeous title track “Nirvana” provides a rich electronic texture to complements Smith’s voice in a way that provides depth, complexity, and warmth without ever stealing the spotlight from his voice. “Safe With Me” and “Together” are balanced a little more heavily towards the other production elements and though they are’t as awe inspiring as “Latch” or “Nirvana” they are undeniably intriguing and enjoyable

Underneath the voice and the production there is a refreshingly endearing sense of candor and honesty that drives Smith’s music. When you see a song titled “Money On My Mind”, its easy to assume it would be a typical Top 40 pop hit about lavish wealth and opulence but don’t let the title fool you. Backed by a frenetic breakbeat, Smith sings:

“When I signed my deal/ I felt pressure/ Don’t wanna see the numbers/ I wanna see heaven”

And follows it shortly after with a chorus of: “I don’t have money on my mind/ I do it for the love”

As if his music didn’t speak for itself, he outlines his thesis clearly for us. This is a man who cares for his craft and desires our respect and appreciation far more than the financial byproducts of popularity. I don’t know about you but that kind earnestness and desire makes me really root for an artist to succeed.

He’s got the chops to make it happen but for now he is simply British dude with a funny haircut, a few great songs and a ton of potential. When his debut album In the Lonely Hour is released later this month (June 17), we may have enough evidence to more accurately project his career trajectory. It will also be interesting to see if Sam Smith’s sexuality will play into his ability to appeal to a mainstream audience. The future success of budding artist is never easy to predict but Sam Smith has the voice, the skill and the timing to make it big.  Regardless of how his debut album is received, the Nirvana EP is a beautiful collection of songs that can’t be missed.

Watch Sam Smith perform the acoustic version of “Latch” here:

You may also like his performance of “Lay Me Down” on SNL:

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