The odds are stacked against Sam Smith’s sophomore album. After all, it follows one of the two biggest heartbreak albums in decades (the other, being 21 by Adele). It’s almost certain that people are going to come off disappointed. And the feeling speaks less about The Thrill of It All‘s quality but more of the connection and investment that people have made to In the Lonely Hour.
Upon giving the album a full listen, around 10 now, I will confirm what you already know. His debut is superior to his second. But give it time, and his new music will creep into your system and have you back in his team again.
This time around, the back story is not compelling. The latest media coverage surrounding his life shows him no longer heartbroken. The name Sam Smith is now established and well decorated with recognition from the music industry. But narrative aside, what is constant is his voice is ethereal and at the same time potent.
Pain, sorrow and loneliness still recur as themes. However, some of the power is gradually shifting. He sings of choosing himself and being selfish in Midnight Train and a numbness for heartbreak in Too Good at Goodbyes. He’s not necessarily closing his windows to relationships but making a plea for the other to make the first move. There is little subtlety in the song Say it First.
If I were being honest, nothing about the sound is groundbreaking. There is no significant experimentation. But ask yourself, why risk a formula that works? And is that completely wrong?
There are sure fire hits like the catchy, gospel choir-infused Baby, You Make Me Crazy. Nostalgia is sure to hit when you listen in on a relationship built but falling in Palace. And there is the prevalent imagery of fire in the context of love with Burning, a strategy that always seems to sell. (Think very hard – Tina Arena, Usher and Ellie Goulding!)
But there are welcome surprises in the album, particularly in two tracks, No Peace and Him.
I’ve always wondered how he’d fare in a duet and his and YEBBA’s collaboration No Peace proves he’d do just as well. The chemistry between the two is undeniable and the power is massive. It sounds similar to how 90s superstars would duke it out with notes flying around and emotions taking over the room.
And while he has spoken of homosexuality, spirituality and love, he has never done so in one go, and in his songs. Him is his struggle to reconcile religion with his disposition. Up until this point, Sam Smith has infused little of his political, religious and personal views together in his music. And his decision to finally tackle it is something to be admired. The song is assured to be an anthem for gay generations today and decades to come.
All in all, the world is better off with The Thrill of It All than without it. It is no In The Lonely Hour but maybe nothing will ever be.