The Thrill Of It All proves that Sam Smith hasn’t lost any vocal prowess but only gained in confidence and vulnerability. Aside from his Grammy-winning James Bond theme song “Writing’s on the Wall” (and the backlash that resulted from an incorrect statement about being the first openly gay man to win an Oscar in his speech), Smith has been out of the limelight since winning instant stardom and acclaim with his 2014 debut In the Lonely Hour and its hit single “Stay With Me”, which earned him Grammys for both Record and Song of the year along with Best New Artist and Best Pop Vocal Album. As Smith explains in a recent New York Times profile, he became famous as an openly gay singer so quickly and so young that he hadn’t really had the time to find his place in the community or as a new public figure in that regard. He has taken this time to come more into his own, and now he is back with an album that is certainly an artistic continuation of In the Lonely Hour, but with songs that are actually about past relationships instead of a longing for one, the Times article notes.
His growth is apparent, and over the course of 10 tracks (on the standard album,) he takes us along for heartbreak, empowerment, and reflection, all exquisitely expressed through his emotional and raw vocals. His once-in-a-generation voice is again the star of this record, and the album is at its best when his vocal ability and range shine brightest. While his singular falsetto and head voice are still the mainstay of the album, he does experiment more with his range, most notably on “Pray.” The album is as intimate and immersive in sound as they come. The closeness and richness of his voice draws you in, not just to listen but to experience and enjoy the atmosphere it creates– how he sings is often just as important as what he’s singing about.
The simplicity and timelessness of this record is evocative of Adele’s 25– if you’re looking for something cutting edge or experimental, you won’t find it here. Some of the tracks are distinctly old school in their doo-wop-like musicality (“One Last Song,” “Baby, You Make Me Crazy”), and while the piano is his main companion on the album, certain songs draw on the vibrancy of a full band (“One Last Song”) or a distinct electric guitar and drum (“Midnight Train”) for something more.
He uses backing vocals or a chorus to elevate many of the songs, and while on certain songs like “Too Good At Goodbyes,” “Burning,” or “Pray” the extra vocals do their job, bringing drama and ambience, on other simpler songs they can seem a bit unnecessary and predictable in their use. However, they are a core part of the style and musicality of the album, and there is a good amount of variety in them, from full choirs on “Pray” and “HIM,” sonically embodying the religious themes of the songs, to delicate harmonies from country artist Cam on “Palace” (who also co-wrote the song).
“Say It First” is perhaps one of the more unique tracks on the album, with its pulsing beat and ambient sounds replacing distinct instruments and more sensual vocals and lyrics. Lyrically, “HIM” is the most different, as it is a strong statement directed towards a religious figure about being proudly gay and unwilling to repent for it. This song of empowerment gives the listener an insight into a Sam Smith beyond him in the context of his relationships and heartbreak, and that is refreshing.
The standout on this album for me is his epic duet “No Peace” with YEBBA. Hearing a woman’s voice on the album was a surprise but in the best way possible. YEBBA is a ready-made star of Adele proportions, and if there’s one thing we can thank this album for, it is our introduction to her (check out her miraculous runs in her song “My Mind” on YouTube– you will be blown away). Her power, control, and soul are a perfect match for Sam, and her talent is fully utilized as they trade lines and harmonize beautifully. With a hypnotizing looping piano (reminiscent of Alicia Key’s “If I Ain’t Got You”) during the verse and a chorus worthy of a true power ballad, the song showcases a more sultry side of Sam while also giving us the dramatic finish the song asks for. He describes them as “fighting each other… vocally”, but if it’s a clash then it’s a perfect one.
Another highlight is “Burning,” which begins with a beautiful a capella rendition of the chorus before the piano comes in and the first verse begins. The song showcases a slightly lower and mature register, but he also shifts effortlessly up to his falsetto and back down, demonstrating his masterful vocal control.
Finally, rather than finish quietly, the album comes to a rousing conclusion with “Pray,” an ambitious, goosebumps-inducing ballad with an incredible church choir backing.
The album is worth more than one listen– with every play these songs become more familiar and classic. While the regular edition of the album is sufficient for a continuous listening session, if you are a Sam Smith fan you will also enjoy the four bonus tracks. His vocals on “Nothing for You” are stellar, and “Scars” is a lovely, personal ode to his parents.
On “Palace,” the penultimate track on the standard album, he laments that “Sometimes I wish, we never built this palace/ But real love is never a waste of time,” and that seems an apt way to sum up the album– despite the ups and downs of love and life, he has lived it fully and deeply so far, and knows how to distill those experiences into universally relatable songs.
While The Thrill of It All might not be drastically different from his first album, Sam Smith still does Sam Smith best, so why fix it if it’s not broke?
Best tracks: “No Peace”, “Pray”, “Burning”
Sam will be headlining an arena tour next summer here in the states. You can get tickets here.