He’s so fucking sad.
On his sophomore release The Thrill of it All, Sam Smith continues ruthlessly down the path of his debut with variations on the same themes of heartbreak and sadness. This album’s 10 tracks are effective for long drives in the rain lamenting the broken shards of one’s life, sure, but in growth terms, it’s a disappointment.
The album opens with the serviceable lead single, “Too Good at Goodbyes,” which in this context is less a pop song than a statement of intent. Smith, on wax, is the platonic ideal of the blue eyed soul Sadboi, someone for whom all relationships fit neatly into piles of nostalgic heartbreak and doomed romance. Every lover is either in the rear view or with one foot out the door. As such, the album’s first half is terminably homogenous. He’s sad and needs you to make the first move (“Say it First”). He’s sad and claims he’s ready to move on (“One Last Song”). He’s sad, so he’s leaving you before you can leave him (“Midnight Train”). He’s so fucking sad it’s causing him to spontaneously combust (“Burning”).
It’s laudable that Smith knows his lane so well, but it’s frustrating how uninteresting he remains inside of it. Save for doo wop flourishes on “Midnight Train,” much of Side A is one well-placed absurdist joke away from being The Lonely Island parodies of Smith’s first album. It’s all pretty standard balladry with soft piano twinkles and the occasionally oomph of hip-hop preset drums. Disclosure’s “Latch” is arguably the best song Sam Smith has ever appeared on, and is great in part because it sets his sullen act outside of its usual environs. His emotionality is more stirring when contrasted with more adventurous music and not just stock adult contemporary auntie tunes.
So it’s a huge breath of fresh air midway through Thrill when Smith shifts gears for “Him,” a gospel laden barn burner about the contentious intersection between homosexuality and religion in which Smith sings to a priest, conflicted about declaring his sexual identity, but speaking from a place of defiance, not weakness. It’s a thrilling exercise, with the timbre of his voice belying the consternation of his words. It will no doubt find a permanent home in all manner of schmaltzy “NO H8” ad campaigns and trailers for Oscar-bait prestige pictures about gay rights, but it still feels big and alive in a way the previous songs just don’t, functioning as a game-changing set piece for the rest of the album.
Side B is decidedly more eclectic, with that church house influence on full display again in album closer “Pray,” another epic departure from the bedroom solipsism the listener has no doubt grown bored of by this point. There’s also “No Peace,” a duet with unsigned singer YEBBA. She’s got great chemistry with Smith and her vocal range is a pleasant contrast on this late night ode to troubled love.
But a few years from now, the lone cut on this album that’ll still be getting radio burn has to be “Baby, You Make Me Crazy.” Built around a lively Ed Watson & The Brass Circle sample, it features production from hitmaker Emile Haynie, horns from The Dap Kings and electric backing vocals that make Smith’s voice soar. It’s got a big, sexy hook and a lot of staying power, making it an easy standout on an otherwise vanilla set. By the time it plays, it’s too late for the rest of the album to follow in its surefire hit footsteps, but maybe his next release will learn a thing or two from its future chart success.