Cosmic Slop #39: Adele and Sam Smith – still miserable

Adele - notably not smiling

Adele – notably not smiling

Adele returns and is accused of ripping off Tom Waits, whilst Sam Smith unveils the saddest song he’s ever written. Getintothis’ Shaun Ponsonby wonders why people think being miserable is deeper art. 

This week Sam Smith revealed a track from his upcoming re-release of whatever that bloody album he did was called. The song is called Drowning Shadows and, speaking to Zane Lowe, labelled it “the saddest song I’ve ever written”.

This troubled me. How have we not heard the saddest song that Sam Smith has ever written? Since crying onto the scene he has been a festival of misery. And people have assumed that, despite his album being decidedly mediocre, because he’s a misery guts it must be quality. I mean, for the love of Jebus, I get it. You’re heartbroken. Boo-fucking-hoo. I’m probably going to die alone and not have my decomposing corpse discovered until the smell really starts to bother the neighbours, but you don’t see me writing song after song about it.

He’s already talking about his second album too. He told Jo Whiley that he has “already written some pretty sad songs”. Great. We haven’t had enough of them in the charts.

He also said he wanted to be sure the next record is “raw and honest”. I’m not sure if that’s something songwriters just say in public, or if it is something that they actually believe. Either way, I’ve always considered it bullshit. You’re constantly manipulating everything as a songwriter, as a poet, as a novelist. Hell, I wouldn’t even trust most people’s recollections. You have a public image that you try to maintain. Smith’s incessant gloom isn’t “raw and honest”, because if it was it would mean that he hasn’t laughed at least once in his life.

Seriously, every time I see him, I feel an unprecedented urge to sing Cheer Up Charlie from the 70s film version of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (choice lyrics: “me and Grandpa Joe can make your troubles go away“. Pure poetry.)

As much as the idea of what is “quality” is absolutely in the eye of the beholder, there does seem to be a prevailing myth that if something is dour, it somehow equates to being superior. As if something that is fun is of less value. And yet, as any actor will tell you, making people laugh is much harder than making them cry.

Does Sam Smith’s Bond theme make our Top 10? Find out here. 

I blame Adele. The unrivalled success of 21, a 48-minute whine about her ex, has blown the doors open for similarly miserable womps to compose harrowing suites of humourless mush to disproportionate acclaim and success.

Adele is still at it. Her new single, Hello, still seems to be about the same ex she was singing about on 21. In case – like me – you didn’t care that she was back so didn’t bother listening to it when everyone else did, Hello is about Adele calling her ex years in the future. Which I’m pretty sure was of great comfort to her current boyfriend, with whom she now has a child with. Yeah, don’t worry, she ain’t hung up on this guy. And she’s still writing songs about him to prove it.

Speaking of Adele’s new one, some fans of Tom “God on Earth” Waits have suggested that it rips off Martha, a song from his classic 1973 debut Closing Time. It seems the subjects of the two songs are almost identical.

A few publications have taken it upon themselves to post both songs’ lyrics side-by-side. NME went for this from Adele; “Hello, it’s me/I was wondering if after all these years/You’d like to meet, to go over everything”.

Compared to this from Waits; “Hello, hello there, is this Martha? This is old Tom Frost/And I’m calling long distance, don’t worry ’bout the cost/Cause it’s been 40 years or more, now Martha please recall/Meet me out for coffee, where we’ll talk about it all”.

Whereas, The Mirror pointed to Martha’s opening line; “Operator, number please, it’s been so many years/Will she remember my old voice while I fight the tears?”

People were clearly outraged on Twitter…

Sorry, by “outraged”, I meant “pointed out the similarities in passing and moved on, before the press went overboard on it”.

Though what’s interesting is the song’s producer Greg Kurstin previously told Entertainment Weekly that Adele wanted to do something “real and believable” like Tom Waits.

Which is bizarre, seeing as Waits has spent most of his career going out of his way to be a caricature, and is all the better for it. Tom Waits presents an over the top persona, and often writes surreal lyrics. I wish Adele wanted to do something more like Tom Waits. Who wouldn’t want the woman who sang Someone Like You to sing lyrics like The Black Rider’s “I think I’ll have the veal/A lovely meal/That’s how I feel/May I use your skull for a bowl”? But, alas, this is unlikely.

“Play it like a midget’s bar mitzvah”: 30 years of Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs

Before that, Tom Waits wrote lyrics as an exaggerated alcoholic vagabond, such as Bad Liver and a Broken Heart, The Piano Has Been Drinking and Tom Traubert’s Blues, which he has said is about “throwing up in a foreign country”.

So…probably not “real and believable”, which I assume means that they haven’t got a fucking clue what they’re talking about. Although, I do believe that in a way Waits surpasses the honesty in his work that someone like Adele has, because he is honest about the fact that so much of what he does is a heavily mediated lie.

I doubt Adele has “ripped off” Tom Waits for Hello, anyway. If that was the case, then we could say Waits ripped off Jim Croce’s Operator and Todd Rundgren’s Hello It’s Me. The idea that someone would stumble across the idea of writing a song about calling a former lover isn’t so implausible. And if she had have ripped off Tom Waits, I’d probably enjoy her more.

Besides, although Tom Waits has plenty of depressing songs, there’s something that sets him apart from the Adeles and Sam Smiths of the world. Leonard Cohen and Radiohead are separated for the same reason. Although they write dour material, it’s not just a series of depressive whines. Lyrically, they all explore more interesting themes (Radiohead), or include clever wordplay and droll, self-deprecating humour (Cohen), or are just all-out performance artists (Waits). They do more than just moan about break-ups and unrequited love.

Think of all the Tom Odell clones we’ll be saved if we just send out the message that being miserable doesn’t mean you’re a deeper artist. It just means you’re miserable.

Oh, hang on. It’s too late. Coldplay have shared new music.

Read more of Shaun’s ramblings in Cosmic Slop


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