Critical Voices: Sam Smith, The Thrill of it All

November 15, 2017

It’s been three years since Sam Smith entered our collective psyche with his first album In the Lonely Hour. Even if you haven’t heard the entire album, you’re most likely familiar with its popular singles like “Stay With Me” and “I’m Not the Only One.” Above all else, In the Lonely Hour was an album about unrequited love. In listening to the album, the audience joins Smith on his heartbreaking journey from falling in love to learning and accepting that it just isn’t meant to be. Essentially, the entire album is one big break up anthem.

In his latest work, Smith continues to tackle the theme of love, as so many pop albums do, but this time he does not limit himself to romantic love. While the content of In The Lonely Hour is intimately connected to one of Smith’s relationships, The Thrill of it All casts a much wider net. In “Scars” Smith ruminates on the divorce of his parents and essentially writes a musical thank you note to for their ongoing support in spite of their personal difficulties. With “HIM” Smith steps outside of himself to write a song from the perspective of a closeted gay boy growing up in Mississippi who is grappling with his own sexuality and religion. The song “Pray” discusses Smith’s tenuous relationship with religion in the aftermath of seeing immense suffering while on a trip for charity in Mosul, Iraq.

While The Thrill Of It All does take some time to step outside of the realm of love, the theme is still front and center in the majority of the album’s songs. Additionally, although Smith declares in “One Last Song” that he is finished singing about the subject of In The Lonely Hour, it is clear that his presence still looms, not only over the new album, but in all of Smith’s current romantic ventures. The more recent romances described by Smith seem to be characterized by his own wariness and fear of intimacy that infiltrate his consciousness as a result of the heartbreak he has suffered.  

The album oscillates between moments of ostensible self-confidence and moments of extreme self doubt, hesitancy, and bargaining that are much more characteristic of his first album. This dichotomy that can be detected within the album’s first two songs. Starting off with the most widely listened to single off the album, “Too Good at Goodbyes”, Smith declares his hardened stance in relationships, allowing his memory of romantic pain to steer him away from commitment. On its own, “Too Good at Goodbyes” can be interpreted to mean that Smith is comfortable in his independence as a single man. However, in the album’s very next song “Say It First,”  Smith reveals his continual  yearning for love and pleads with his new romantic interest to offer him the security he needs in order to move forward.

Driving every lyric of the album is Smith’s most recognizable attribute: his voice. One of the singles off of The Thrill Of It All, “Pray” highlights the depth and range of Smith’s vocal ability. Hearing the mainline of the chorus which features a run all the way from Smith’s rich baritone to his exquisite falsetto is enough to give anyone goosebumps. Smith’s voice has both a power and delicacy that captivates on its own merit, allowing the rest of the production to be relatively simple.

Similar to his first album, the production of Smith’s new songs revolve mainly around instrumentation driven by a simple piano or guitar line and the force of Smith’s lyrics and voice along with a noticeable choral presence. Although this style is relatively straightforward, it is extremely effective in carefully relaying the emotional tenderness of Smith’s work. Despite the success of this combination Smith does, however, take moments to explore different styles. In songs like “One Last Song” and “Baby, You Make Me Crazy,” Smith allows the rhythm to drive the songs movement rather than depending solely on Smith’s emotion. These explorations have a refreshing quality on the album and add to rather than distract from its overall somber tone.

The Thrill Of It All is by no means a perfect album. Smith’s lyricism is not the most complex nor is the instrumentation particularly imaginative. However, these factors are not what Smith relies upon in order to create great music. It is Smith’s raw authenticity and propensity for excavating the layers of his own sadness that make the album worthwhile.

Kayla Hewitt
Kayla is the Voice's podcast editor.

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