The Brits Critics’ Choice Award was invented in 2008 as a technocratic rival to the authoritarian democracy of Simon Cowell’s The X Factor. Voted for by an unknown quantity of “experts”, including critics such as myself, the annual prize was set up to provide the music industry with its own platform for branding new talent into public consciousness.
Those keen to write off record companies should take note: the award, however cynically formulated (it should really be called the Labels’ Choice), has a far better track record than The X Factor, increasingly a one-way ticket to panto in Skegness. Past Critics’ Choice winners include Adele, Jessie J and Emeli Sandé. The latest, 21-year-old singer Sam Smith, doesn’t look likely to buck the trend.
Smith’s show at the Shepherds Bush Empire followed his single “Money on My Mind” reaching number one in the UK charts. The venue was packed, the mood excited. There was a shrill atmosphere onstage too. Blaring music produced by a string quartet, three backing singers and a four-piece band sounded like expense should have been spared, while Smith’s vocals were over-amplified. But amid the boosterism the singer’s qualities began to show.
Although he first emerged guesting on a pair of dance hits, Naughty Boy’s “La La La” and Disclosure’s “Latch”, Smith’s own songs, from a debut album due in May, are pitched at a broader audience. Blandness is the risk of aiming for the supermarket-shopper demographic, a danger Smith mainly avoided. His voice, once the amplification levels calmed down, slipped fluently between R&B, pop and soul, high-toned and emotive yet also calm and controlled: there was no over-singing.
“Not in That Way” was a rich and measured torch song, Smith’s crooning entrapped by a slowly circling electric guitar motif. A cover of the Arctic Monkeys’ “Do I Wanna Know?” imaginatively located the song’s inner Justin Timberlake. Although dressed in black designer frock coat and box-fresh white trainers, a too obvious pop-star makeover, Smith was a likeably natural presence, unsure what to do with the hand that wasn’t holding the microphone (point? hold heart? dangle?) but self-assured in manner. When he sang, in the face of the corporate treasure and expectations invested in him, “I don’t have money on my mind, I do it for the love,” I believed him.