So much about Sam Smith's debut album suggests a kind of weakness.
For starters, there's the young British soul singer's voice, a supple tenor that he often pushes into falsetto – high and striking, certainly, but seemingly as delicate as rain. Then there are his lyrics on "In the Lonely Hour," which Smith has said describe his desperate feelings regarding a single lover – or, rather, someone he wishes had been his lover but who spurned his advances.
"Why am I so emotional?" he asks himself in "Stay With Me," just one of this album's many moments of brutal introspection, "No, it's not a good look / Gain some self-control."
Yet beneath the tissue lies muscle. A detailed document of suffering, Smith's album presents the singer as a man given over so completely to passion that he ends up a hero, his ruin the proof of a pure heart.
You can hear it in the way he frames his voice here, which represents a shift from the role it played in the dance tracks with which he first gained notice. In Disclosure's "Latch" and Naughty Boy's "La La La," both huge hits in the U.K., Smith's singing served as a softening agent, a means of humanizing precisely tooled machine beats.
On his album, though, he uses gentler arrangements -- unadorned acoustic guitar in "Leave Your Lover," a few spare piano chords in "Lay Me Down" -- that can make his voice sound like the hardest element in a song.
Sometimes his singing takes on real aggression, as in "I've Told You Now," where he loses his patience with the man not returning his feelings. "What the hell?" Smith cries, "Why do you think I come 'round here on my free will? / Wasting all my precious time."
In "Like I Can," over a throbbing gospel groove that recalls Adele's "Rolling in the Deep," his devotion sours as he savors the thought of the man's eventual disappointment: "There may be lovers who hold out their hands / But he'll never love you like I can."
But more often on "In the Lonely Hour," widely expected to debut this week near the top of Billboard's album chart, Smith puts himself proudly in the defensive position. He finds strength in the wholeness of his vulnerability.