Sam Smith — The Thrill of It All (2017) | Album Review
Sam Smith’s sophomore record has a very slight edge over his debut, but that is not enough to save it from tepidity. It is nothing more than you expect it to be: innocuous blue-eyed soul about heartbreaks with soothing vocals.
It’s understandable why people compare Sam Smith to Adele: they are both British; they both write soulful songs about men who broke their heart; and their sophomore albums sound more or less the same as their debut. But you can easily see why Adele is more successful both commercially and critically: her songs have more diversity in personality and musical direction. She can be vengeful on “Rolling in the Deep,” sassy on “Rumour Has It,” nostalgic on “When We Were Young,” or melancholy and vulnerable on “Someone like You.” Sam Smith’s palette, on the other hand, is limited, following some certain formulae. Unlike his debut, The Thrill of It All lacks any upbeat song à la “Money On My Mind.” Sure, it is more consistent as a result, but more often than not it feels bland and unmemorable.
The lead single off the album, “Too Good At Goodbye” has almost the exact same structure of “Stay With Me.” The sparing instrumentation keeps it different enough for the first minute, but by the time the chorus sets in with a choir backing him up, the similarity is undeniable. Most of the songs on the album are also built on choral arrangements, giving the album a cohesive feeling. However, the delivery is the same on each and every of them, and the subject matter hardly changes. Hence, the album can still convey the same message with half of its length, or even less. Even worse, they are so stale that any song with compound meter on the album sounds exactly like Meghan Trainor’s “Like I’m Gonna Lose You,” which is a generic, dumbed-down soul song itself. “Midnight Train,” on the other hand, share unsettling similarities with Radiohead’s “Creep.”
Still, we’ve heard albums consist almost entirely of ballads with similar structure, yet they are still intriguing. Take Tobias Jesso Jr.’s Goon for example. Ten out of twelve songs in the album are built on a central piano accompaniment, sometimes go on for almost a full minute with just the piano, but they manage to fill up the space and draw in the listener. That’s because they all have a specific narrative, highly personal, but oddly universal at the same time. He spices up the composition: the piano is used in different ranges, white noise, sound effects are utilized to give different contexts into which to put his voice. The delivery is also alternated: he wails, he belts, he makes his voice muffled now and then, but clean and sober in other places. Good production makes all the difference.
That said, the album is not without its strengths. It is undeniable that though rather one-dimensional, Sam Smith has a wonderful voice, which acts as the sole support for the album. Some more memorable tracks include “Nothing Left For You,” a blues torch song with slightly stronger vocals than his usual falsettos, “Say It First,” a pop cut reminiscent of Leona Lewis, or “Pray,” a Timbaland assisted gospel track where he sings most of the chorus with his chest voice, which is admittedly very rare. The one outstanding track, still, is the coming-out track “HIM” (well its title is capitalized for a reason). The use of choral gospel music, intentional or not, is a fascinating combination with the subject matter and makes a strong statement. After spending the entire In the Lonely Hour (and also a large majority of The Thrill of It All) avoiding gender specific pronouns, it’s surprising, but also welcoming that he’s finally embracing and expressing his identity in his music. While it is still quite a far cry from Frank Ocean’s “Bad Religion,” Perfume Genius, or even Rufus Wainwright, it is nevertheless a good start.
It is quite an irony that such an uneventful and nondramatic album is called The Thrill of It All. The record is an decent, enjoyable, inoffensive, and easy listening, but too safe, unadventurous, and nothing that remarkable.
Best track: “HIM”