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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Review: Sam Smith's Abu Dhabi gig proves it's time to stop being cruel about him

Yes, his music is at times a soporific comfort blanket, but something's changed about the singer - he now has swagger

It is easy to be cruel about Sam Smith. His teary ballads and earnest lyrics lack the grit to really move you. This is music so sentimental and sugary, it can leave you feeling a bit sick. But it is, perhaps, this inoffensiveness that ensures Smith's enduring mass appeal. Two top-five albums since 2016 and a 100-date worldwide tour prove that, sometimes, all we really want is an enormous comfort blanket draped around us.

And while Smith certainly delivered this often throughout his performance at the du Arena, he also brought an unexpected - and irresistible - sense of joy. Where once Smith was a shy, almost awkward, performer, here in Abu Dhabi he loosened his shoulders, let his hips go and belted out his choruses - all the while imploring the crowd to do the same.

Heartbreak? It's just a state of mind, you see.

There was a real swagger about Smith during a jazz-infused version of Omen (Smith's 2014 collaboration with dance duo Disclosure), while Restart, from Smith's debut album In the Lonely Hour, saw him shimmying this way and that to the electro-pop beat, even while singing about a troubling break-up. Same songs; different guy.

By the time Smith performed Promises, the Calvin Harris-backed sound of the summer, that comfort blanket had been thrown off and replaced by a carnival atmosphere. It was impressive stuff and a delight to see the 26-year-old Londoner embracing a bolder, happier presence on stage.

Smith's voice has never been the concern. And he showed off its full range on the epic Bond theme, Writing's on the Wall, backed by luscious strings and grand piano, before moving straight into the breathy falsetto of Money on my Mind. As the croaky singalongs around me proved, the rest of us don't find this so easy.

There were inevitable lulls, meaning that the pacing of the set was awkward and a bit uneven. The formula of much of Smith's material is defiantly conventional. Say It First and Midnight Train have all the spark of a clod of damp soil. I've Told You Now isn't much better. And when too many of these forgettable meanders are stacked one after the other, the effect can be soporific - a feeling not helped by Smith's insistence on introducing every member of his band. Sweet thing to do maybe, but hearing a roll call of names - "Patrick... Lucy... Chris..." - wasn't all that much fun for those of us not in the band.

Fortunately, Smith now has the charisma to shake off these lapses in energy. There was a blistering encore, featuring the durable Stay with Me, and a final goodbye to Abu Dhabi, a place he really - really! - loves (I don't know if he mentioned that). At long last, Smith's personality has caught up with his talent. It's a potent combination.

Time, then, to stop being cruel about Sam Smith.