Dependable, vulnerable, and perhaps sadly, altogether confused.
Quite a distinguishable man, artist, and voice, in a very indistinguishable industry. May I present to you, Sam Smith. Few know not his name. What with the plea to “Stay With” him, that has sold well over 4 million copies. He not only is a Grammy winner, an Oscar winner, but has also been handed the prestigious award of Top 5 Greatest Modern Vocalists, by yours truly (lucky him!). So, with such status, fond, and appreciation, we must ask ourselves, are we expecting too much of this breakout star, when approaching his sophomore album? Because ultimately, hype can be a man’s worst ally…
Let us jump right in, shall we? To springboard off the leadoff single, “Too Good at Goodbyes”, this is a rather Gospel-infused, moody, and theatrical album. One which revels in the likes of Church-choired ballads, 90’s hip-hop, to more subtle moments of reflection, all led by Smith’s always transcendent vocals. As you might sense though, there is a but approaching. Perhaps the question is, does this all sound rather expected in a Sam Smith description? Because frankly, The Thrill of It All seems to be an attempt to recapture Smith’s melancholy, soulful, and brooding first dip into the entertainment world of In The Lonely Hour (that I admittedly swooned for). And while it is far from uninspired, it just feels slightly familiar for its own good.
In my own defense, the album sells itself pretty highly by its title alone. When approaching nearly the first half of the record, one might question, where’s all the thrill, exactly? If dependable and old-school Smith is what you seek, I think you may, conservatively, be satisfied. Still, the openers Too Good at Goodbyes, Say It First, and especially Midnight Train, I found rather timid and by the numbers. While the cliché 90’s romance ballad, One Last Song, is rather enjoyable. Still, it’s hard to overlook that it verily lacks some much needed gravitas, in order to establish the album early on. When the halfway point kicks off, however, things start finding ground. The saving grace comes in the form of Burning, a slow boiler and heart-wrencher, if ever there was one. While in line with former Smith ballads, this contained the true theatrics we have come to expect from him, all in the best way possible.
From then on out, while thrill might be a slight over exaggeration, solid records seem to abound. You’ll find the likes of a picturesque slow guitar strummer, mixed with melting vocals, in Palace (my personal favorite). The 90’s spunk and fun is once again found in the break up, Baby, You Make Me Crazy. Smith turns in an incredible duet with the newbie YEBBA (which one hopes will kick off her career soon) to epic proportions. Finally, he closes in Pray, a song slightly mixed in message and tone, but one that has grown on me in fantastic “Gospel meets aggression” form, to close out the album (this review is for the studio album alone, not the Deluxe).
For content purposes, it’s hard not to summarize the previous statements in similar form. This album is largely fine, but slightly shallow, formulaic, and incohesive. You’ll find the typical break ups (a lot, to be honest), the typical love swoons, with only slim personal material thrown in. Smith has stated that many of the tracks are not true to life tales, and were merely lyrics that seemed good to the writers in the moment. To be honest, that’s not always a terrible thing. I think it’s rare to find an artist who mostly (let along altogether) makes the material based off their present experiences. But in short, that’s what makes Thrill of it All a rather typical pop album. The material, in the long run, does feel detached and commonplace, and his enduring vocals only carry so far. But when there is a personal touch, that’s when things get interesting. Burning is one such song that describes the seclusion and longing Smith had when a lover left (the phrase burning could be taken slightly sensual), and is quite sincere in its delivery. Pray, likewise, shakes things up. The song is a man approaching God, interestingly enough, seeking rhyme and reason in this messed up world. It’s not an altogether spotless record. In fact, it’s a rather realistic description of a lost soul reaching out once again, with nothing but the world’s faults to make sense of it. He spurts an S word (the only profanity in the Studio Album), calls himself a sinner, and even tries to rationalize that he really is a God-seeker. Yet, this admitted naivety is enduring in its own right, when such a man sees the darkness of the world, and is left with no other option than prayer.
This leaves us approaching one last song, a key one on the album; HIM. The song is one which is considered brave and vulnerable in the mainstream world. The song is Smith’s “Coming Out” song. While he is not quiet in regards to his sexuality, this is the first official song in which he addresses it. The song follows his long flow of Gospel infusion, hints at religion, desperation that he is a truth seeker, all to come to his fathers (both f and F), and open up about his lifestyle. The plea of the song is simple, God certainly still accepts me, but if not, I can’t leave him (his lover). I won’t hold back, on an artistic level, the haunting and slow-paced build up makes for one of the best on the album (with equal vocals). Though, it’s an altogether touchy subject and song to approach as well. Because by looking at Sam Smith’s personality and lyrics throughout, you can tell he is sincere, honest, and has a desire to be a morally (both socially and divinely) decent/good person. This song oddly enough (and perhaps the album, to a smaller extent), is his cries and fights within himself, and with God. He simply looks at what his flaws are, and hopes beyond hope that his own good outweighs his bad. It’s a heartbreaking and tragic song and mindset. I’m actually not here today to condemn this song outright. I feel that it is a song that is true and tragic enough (if not slightly manipulative) that it can be one that, within the realm of mature audiences, can be a timely reminder (because after all, how many other songs do we listen to that hail immoral lifestyles?). No, I’m not here to approve nor condemn. Just to take note. Smith here is playing the part of oh so many throughout man’s time on earth. Many seek good, pray good, hope good, and morally live good. But when an all-knowing Father asks for your heart, and you respond with “yes. . .but not this part,” have you really sought HIM? I’d wager a pretty penny, with this particular sin aside, that this song speaks volumes to, not just the people around us, or ourselves, but the world entirely. As a side note, while it seems slightly slow and personal, it has the potential sound of a future misinformed Civil Rights theme, which would make the song’s apparent humility devoid.
I suppose the perfect way to describe this album is that it requires a plethora of footnotes. There is sheer beauty, power, and leisure to be found here, but it’s hard not to insert a hesitant let down from time to time. In its most appalling and dark moments, one can’t help but highlight the vulnerability, the well-intent, and the tragic threads of humanity involved. And while the music therein has some major highlights, it’s hard not to point out that he felt far superior in his freshman attempt. Still though, issues aside, Smith’s voice still rings beautifully, if not with convention and agenda.