Sam Smith’s sophomore album is so damp with sadness that in the rare event something as traditionally joyful as a thrill is conjured, it’s only in service of retrospective melancholy. “I guess I got lost in the moment / I guess I got lost in the fall / I guess I got lost in your heartbeat / In the thrill of it all,” chirps Smith’s falsetto during the album’s lovelorn title track, “The Thrill of It All.”
Given the utter humorlessness of Smith’s music, it doesn’t seem that he chose the name he did for this album stuffed with heartbroken ballads as a gag of eye-rolling irony. No, it’s more reflective of how Smith wrings out the misery of absolutely every aspect of life. This goes for the lives of others, too. Though everything here is told from a first-person perspective, Smith in pre-release interviews has said that only a handful of songs on The Thrill of It All are about him—more were inspired by his friends and family.
“When it was good, it was bittersweet, honey,” he laments over a lite doo-wop backing on “One Last Song.” His self-respect is a “river ran dry” on “Burning.” His heart is full of sorrow on “Baby, You Make Me Crazy,” his head is full of ruins on “Palace.” In that song, Smith looks back on a past relationship and claims, “I regret ever complaining / ‘Bout this heart and all its breaking.” Yeah right. He doesn’t seem capable of spending his time in any other way; without the complaining, Smith would likely cease to exist.
Multiple songs here bemoan past injury (“Can’t you see I am a product of my own past? / So I know this will never last” in “Nothing Left for You”) to paint the picture of romantic PTSD that is not ever quite believable. Nor is his delivery, really—yes, his voice impressively acrobatic, and his tone is rich whether he goes high or low. But he goes high and low in such frequent succession that the emotional contour of his interpretations take on the clinical predictability of sine waves. He has the sort of post-Idol chops that feel good in your ears without ever penetrating your soul. His pipes rapidly aquiver with performative gesturing, he’s about as believable as the boy who cried hummingbird.
There is little on Thrill to challenge the existing conception of Sam Smith, and the album plays it incredibly safe. Its arrangements are sparse, tasteful, and mostly laconic—gingerly pressed piano keys, muted percussion, solo electric-guitar frameworks, some vague Motown notions (which are, at this point, about as sharp as Xeroxes of Xeroxes of Xeroxes), choirs routinely deployed at songs’ climaxes for maximum bombast. This is music by and for the status quo, a soundtrack for walking in place.
To be fair, Smith does show signs of slow personal progress—on this album, a handful of tracks use gender-specific pronouns that make Smith’s sexuality clear. This is most pronounced on the confessional “HIM,” whose title is so styled in all caps as to be a bold declaration (perhaps to stick it to those who complained about Smith’s past covering of his sexuality in his work specifically via his pronoun choices, as I have). “HIM,” though, gestures at coming out without any real experiential specificity—“Holy Father, we need to talk / I have a secret that I can’t keep / I’m not the boy that you thought you wanted / Please don’t get angry, have faith in me,” is how Smith opens. The chorus’s resolution—“Say I shouldn’t be here but I can’t give up his touch / It is him I love, it is him / Don’t you try and tell me that God doesn’t care for us / It is him I love, it is him I love”—is the kind of reckoning of religion and homosexuality that we’ve heard so many times, its expression is passé.
But I guess it’s important that Smith got there himself (it strikes me that I don’t at all look forward to crawling through Smith’s it-gets-better era, whenever it should arrive). His music is a nonstop bore, but there is something fascinating about the cultural space he occupies as an out queer pop star (though he has used the word “gay” to describe himself consistently since coming out, he recently told The Sunday Times that he doesn’t consider himself cisgender and “I feel just as much woman as I am man”). The way his art weaves in and out of stereotypes associated with gay men is nothing less than wholly human. Sonically, his music conjures little traditional cultural gayness (though it does seem crafted to sit alongside Elton John’s ’90s treacle) while at the same time he’s tortured by his own heart in a way that jibes with traditionally tragic depictions of gay people in pop culture. He is, by any measure, soft, but instead of this being merely the perpetuation of a stereotype, it’s more crucially a believable sensibility that is prevalent enough in the real world to warrant representation on a global stage. So is his inoffensively packaged sexuality, for that matter—I don’t admire queers who go out of their way to make straight people feel comfortable, but I can’t deny their existence.
Smith is an odd one. His music is unchallenging but his identity expression (not to mention his incredible popularity) makes him difficult to dismiss outright. In this age of social media, multi-threats, and pronounced social consciousness from stars and in their fans’ interpretations of their work, it is clearer than ever that a pop star is nothing without his context. Sam Smith, though, is more enjoyable to think about than listen to. The idea of him is more stimulating than the reality.