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In live performance Sam Smith sometimes seems to forget about the audience. Eyes half-closed, hands hugging elbows or buried in pockets, his attention is so tuned to his otherworldly voice that everything in this world disappears. It makes for riveting listening although the same can’t always be said for the viewing. Sometimes it feels like all the emotions escaped through his mouth before they could reach his face. But who cares if he’s not outwardly expressive? Such natural gifts and impeccable technique have charms of their own.
The 25-year-old Brit has been on a rocket ride upwards since before he could drink on his American tours. He launched to fame on the back of smash-hit single “Latch”, a stunning collaboration with the duo Disclosure. He followed that up with his debut LP, In the Lonely Hour, a collection of mid-tempo ballads with more hits than misses. He got tapped for the 2015 James Bond film, Specter, and his “Writing’s on the Wall” won an Academy Award. Granted, that probably says more about the quality of Academy voters than it does about the quality of the song, but still: for a 25-year-old with just one album, he’s remarkably accomplished.
And now comes The Thrill of It All, a collection of unassuming love songs that tends to get better the more times you listen. It opens with “Too Good at Goodbyes”, a soaring anthem to being callously thick-skinned. The track was produced by those reliable Norwegian hitmakers Stargate, which might explain the presence of infectious finger-snaps, the kind that have been scientifically proven to short-circuit the human brain and get the toes tapping.
Some of these songs – “One Last Song” and “Midnight Train” come to mind – could have appeared on In the Lonely Hour. These are catchy in a comfortable sort of way. It’s not that Smith’s vocal corybantics are unimpressive; it’s just that they’re less impressive the second time around. More fun is when he stretches himself beyond the bounds of loving and losing and dabbles in self-destruction.
Not one, but two songs reference smoking cigarettes. On first glance, this might seem about as believable as a Fat Joe verse about enjoying kale. Has Sam Smith, a man with an instrument as pure and piercing as a piccolo, really smoked “twenty a day,” as he alleges on “Burning”? So he says. In a statement to BBC Radio, he said that “Burning” is about a bender he got into after a bad breakup last year. He adds, “That song to me is about fame as well, the responsibilities I felt and the pressure, and my relationship with my voice…” The lyrics drip with acid, but Smith is dripping on himself. “Funny how time goes by/ Had respect for myself/ That river ran dry.” He slips into self-loathing like a well-tailored suit.
Less complex but no less catchy is “No Peace”, featuring the big-voiced YEBBA. It’s a standard tale of drinking and smoking away your sorrows that, in a different arrangement, could’ve been found on country radio. Smith powers through his upper registers without slipping into his head voice almost like an operatic tenor, and the line “I’d kill for you” is hair-raising because of it.
But the most interesting song, at least at this political moment of 2017, is “Him”. Smith grew up Catholic and is openly gay; “Him” shows the singer living both of these truths in defiance of heaven and earth. The lyrics serve double-duty, and when Smith says, “I can’t give up his touch/ It is Him I love/ It is Him,” he means both man and God. It’s moving and personal and even a little erotic in a way that’s rare in pop spirituals.
Smith has a nuanced and consistently engaging approach to religion. Perhaps the most thrilling song on The Thrill of It All is “Pray”, a gospel hymn of doubt and need, of praying even though you think it won’t work. The beat by Timbaland builds and swells as Smith’s need grows greater. “I’ve never believed in you, no/ But I’m gonna pray,” he wails at the climax, and even this atheist could relate.
Even at a compact 10 songs, The Thrill of It All has a dull spot or two. “Baby You Make Me Crazy” is boilerplate. “Palace” sounds gorgeous, until you listen to the lyrics, and then it sounds silly. As far as metaphors go, you can do worse than “our love is a falling-down building,” but you can do better, too, and the line, “Real love is never a waste of time” isn’t strong enough to bear all that many repetitions.
But these are small quibbles, and at a brisk 35 minutes, the album is so aerodynamically constructed that it quickly flies past any rough patches. Much of it feels comfortable; at 25, Smith can still sing the hell out of the kind of love songs he could sing the hell out of when he was 20. But he’s grown, too, and The Thrill of It All is best when he stretches out of his comfort zone.
Essential Tracks: “Too Good at Goodbye”, “Him”, and “Pray”