Bearing witness to the development of Sam Smith is like watching a small child gradually learn about the horrors of the world, lose their innocence and evolve into a jaded adult. Sam Smith gives off such an air of naivete, it’s easily mistaken for simple stupidity. We watched him come to terms with the fact he wasn’t, in fact, the first openly gay man to win an Oscar before going on to say he’d like to ‘date’ previous gay Oscar winner Howard Ashman, not realising he died of an AIDS-related illness in 1991. He thought Mexico was a place in Germany, “somewhere near Berlin” he told Nick Grimshaw, much to the presenter’s dismay, before adding that he was now “much more clued up.” And as though to prove his newfound wisdom, his new single is – allegedly, at least – about the atrocities currently taking place in Mosul, Iraq.
Speaking to Billboard Magazine, Smith said “I spent five days in Mosul and came back embarrassed that I had known so little about the world and other people’s lives. I wanted to write about how I’m now starting to open my eyes, at 25, to what is going on in the rest of the world, and that it’s not always pretty.” Fucking hell.
First of all, let’s clarify that it’s great Smith is clearly trying to educate himself. There are plenty of 25 year-olds who know nothing about international affairs, and the fact Smith has taken an interest is nice, I guess. But Jesus Christ Sam Smith, 25 is still a bit late to be pulling your head from your arse and taking a look around, isn’t it? I mean, it’s certainly not something we should be congratulating him for. And his rather glib summation that the situation in the rest of the world is ‘not always pretty’ suggests he hasn’t really learned that much from his foreign travels at all. It’s not like we’re expecting Smith to deliver a keynote speech on the politics of Iraq, but you’d expect a deeper answer from a ten year-old in a geography lesson, never mind a 25 year-old who’s actually been to the place.
More frustrating still, is the fact ‘Pray’ doesn’t actually mention Mosul, Iraq or anything of substance at all. “I went back to that great Nina Simone quote, that it is important to speak about the times you live in,” he told Billboard, but ‘Pray’ does nothing of the sort. Rather than address any actual issues, it turns inwards, Smith making the song all about his own journey of discovery. “I lift up my head and the world is on fire / There’s dread in my heart and fear in my bones,” he sings, reducing a humanitarian crisis to another poor-me narrative in which Smith is one of the victims.
Musically, ‘Pray’ benefits from top production courtesy of Timbaland and Jimmy Napes. The old-school RnB beat lends the track a certain gravity, Smith’s baritone sounding at home over the subdued gospel arrangement. The chorus, that really does sound a lot like every other Sam Smith chorus ever, is nonetheless a mature and sincere affair, Smith having at least moved on from screeching about making money and blubbing over a one night stand.
‘Pray’ is undoubtedly a track with good intentions, and one that sounds like a real progression for Smith, musically speaking, at least. That said, if Smith was aiming for a state-of-the-world anthem, he falls remarkably short . His conclusion that “Everyone prays in the end,” is a jarring summary and one that offers nothing of substance. While his aim was surely noble, on ‘Pray’, Smith proves that the only thing he’s really capable of singing about is himself.