If the public had reacted with overwhelming positivity to the searing emotional honesty of In The Lonely Hour, ‘I’m Not The Only One’ showed that Sam Smith was a very capable creative songsmith, too, echoing the enduring legacies of established masters such as Elton John and Billy Joel. Smith could tell great stories just as well as they could pour their heart out.
‘I’m Not The Only One’ was released as the second single from their debut album in the US, and the third in the UK, hitting radio on 31 August 2014. Its parent album had an almost obsessive focus on an elusive love, but this song was an observational piece written about a woman’s troubled marriage.
Devastatingly effective drama
There were perhaps more obvious choices for a single release, but Smith was keen to avoid picking surefire radio hits, and fan reaction to the track had proved overwhelmingly positive. Still, the song’s genesis hadn’t been entirely straightforward. Its core sequence of chords had been fixed early on, but attempts to shape a fuller composition had already led to one song being jettisoned. ‘I’m Not The Only One’ slowly emerged after painstaking reconstruction.
Following ‘Money On My Mind’ and ‘Stay With Me’ in the UK, ‘I’m Not The Only One’ made it to No.3 in Smith’s homeland and No.5 in the US, where their profile was exploding in a burst of critical and commercial appreciation. Any concerns that the track was a risky choice as a single, or wouldn’t help further In The Lonely Hours’ success, were swiftly laid to bed – the album would go on to shift more than 12 million worldwide and was among the world’s top five best-sellers for two consecutive years.
One of Smith’s most widely-seen videos – with more than one billion views to date – the clip for ‘I’m Not The Only One’ saw Glee’s Dianna Agron join The Mindy Project’s Chris Messina, playing out a domestic drama to devastating effect. Its raw, painful scenes of adulterous deceit and the hurt it causes may be dressed in the Californian glamour of Desperate Housewives, but the same scenes play out daily in Manchester, Melbourne and Madrid, too.
Stories that tell us something about ourselves
As time has gone by, the song has become one of the standards from Smith’s back catalogue. It’s easy to see why. This piano ballad contains the hook-heavy ballast of a credible soul groove (almost Motown-inspired, to these ears) and that credibility is demonstrated by the way the track tore through multiple Billboard genre listings on its release – there was something here for radio programmers of many types of stations.
As well as that cracking melody, the song has an emotional intelligence that resonates beyond a specific gender or sexuality. On ‘I’m Not The Only One’, Smith established themselves as an everyman – someone who creates stories that tell us something about ourselves. It’s no wonder it is the track so many go back to from that first record.
Later compositions would flip between the observational and the confessional, but ‘I’m Not The Only One’ remains possibly the high point of In The Lonely Hour. Dramatic, honest and devastatingly nuanced, it’s a song that would outlast the buzz of Grammy Awards, that big breakthrough album, or even the emotional novelty of a gay person so articulate and visible. It would speak simply, instead, of universal human truths that are certain to outlast us all.