Music structure and lyrics
Musically, “Smile” is a bubbly, mid-tempo tune with “a barroom piano lick”, subdued horns and a reggae beat, singing in a lightfalsetto, while the organ riff contains a sample of Jackie Mittoo playing keyboards on the 1960s rocksteady song “Free Soul” by The Soul Brothers, also written by Mittoo. He and Clement Dodd received credit on the song as co-writers.It was described to have a “cod-reggae groove that smoulders like a barbecue” as a guitar and piano were used for the background music, following the notes Gm—F as its basic chord progression. It is set in the time signature of common time, having a metronome of 96 beats per minute, and is played in the key of F major. Lyrically, the song describes Allen’s satisfaction in her former lover’s suffering, being in a vengeful mood: “At worst / I feel bad for a while, / But then I just smile / I go ahead and smile,” thus creating a contrast between “the peppy melody and brassy lyrics”.The inspiration for the song came from a real life experience, when Allen broke up with her then boyfriend, Lester Lloyd, resulting in a drug overdose and hospitalization for her depression. The singer claimed “I started to get depressed and anyone who suffers from depression knows that it can soon get so bad that you can’t get out of bed. It was then that I checked into the Priory. That was really tough as I was an emotional mess. […] The lyrics are definitely bitter-sweet”. Allen said she later regretted the direct approach of her lyrics:
I’m now less inclined to do that, because everything that I do say gets repeated in a way that I haven’t said it, or taken out of context and spun in some negative way — and it makes me really sad. I’m not, like, a negative person. I’m actually quite positive, but this industry has really made me feel angry and negative recently. I’m not enjoying it at the moment.
“smile” was met with mixed to positive reviews from music critics. According to Heather Phares of Allmusic, the song “has a silky verse melody that just barely conceals [the singer’s] spite”, while she keeps “her revenge sweet, the extra sting being given to it by the way she sounds like she’s singing about how ice cream or puppies or being in love makes her smile”.Blender reporter Jon Dolan claims that Allen “deploys a sugary melody as a Trojan horse for a smackdown on a douche-bag ex-boyfriend”,as Rob Webb from Drowned in Sound called “Smile” an “infectious slice of bouncing, carnival reggae that punches hard with its opening line: ‘When you first left me / I was wanting more / But you were fucking that girl next door / What you do that for?,'” and went on to say that the theme of the song is melancholy, “set against breezy beats”, and while not being “an obvious TOTP contender on the surface, [it] is good but far from one of the LP’s choice cuts”.Rob Sheffield from Rolling Stone gave a rather negative review, claiming the singer “doesn’t sound as if she’s trying too hard”, singing the song with a “breezy sha-la-la lilt that just made the song seem even nastier”. Later, he called Allen a “theoretical pop princess, who just entered the breakup-song hall of fame”. Dom Passantino of Stylus suggested that “‘Smile’ gets burned off the lights by both Sean Paul and Abs when it comes to facsimiles of ‘Uptown Top Ranking,’ but neither of them could bring the quality of lyricism the singer does,” while Slant Magazine reporter Sal Cinquemani was baffled as to why the song, which she “sings without a smirk of irony”, is a UK chart-topper.
The reviewer from NME considered that the song sashays along with sass, while still remaining charming, and said that though it doesn’t mark Allen out as excellent dating material, as a soundtrack to the summer, “it’s a dead fackin’ cert”.Adrien Begrand of PopMatters called “Smile” just as good as “LDN”, “its loose reggae arrangement augmented by the clever sample of Jackie Mittoo’s piano from the Soul Brothers’ 60s rocksteady tune “Free Soul”, as Allen sings bitterly about her ex, with just a hint of vulnerability at first, before going to her friends for reassurance, and confronting the guy during the chorus with a mean-spirited confidence that has us cheering inside”. While John Murphy of MusicOMH praised the song and its “gently lilting reggae rhythm”, Priya Elan from NME considered that the Althea & Donna groove of “Smile” is what made fans “fall for her in the first place”. The former argued that “even people who profess to hate pop music will secretly be tapping a foot to it and claiming it is just downright perfect pop for lolling around during the lazy warm, guaranteed to cheer the listeners up, no matter how down they’re feeling”.Other reviews came from The Guardian reporter Sophie Heawood, who didn’t consider the song as Allen’s greatest effort, but still thought she was far better than being called “the female Mike Skinner”.
In October 2011, NME placed it at number 104 on its list “150 Best Tracks of the Past 15 Years”