Sam Smith always had the voice of a great artist. Though things can get a bit sketchy when he reaches into his upper registers, he is still one of the most idiosyncratic singers in mainstream pop music and has one of the best lower registers out there. In addition, he has always lended his voice to instrumentals that have always complimented him ‒ from his various collaborations with house outfit Disclosure to his somber debut record.
The Thrill of It All is no different. For the most part, the atmosphere of In the Lonely Hour carries over. What sets his latest apart from the the debut is the strength of the songwriting. The difference in quality of these two albums’ non-singles is very apparent. Tracks like “Say It First” and “Midnight Train” prove that Smith has sharpened his ability to pen grey, downtrodden ballads while still keeping the catchiness expected of a great pop record intact.
While the dark ambiance is seldom broken and there are a few reoccurring sonic ingredients throughout the record (ex. gospel choirs, string sections), Smith and his producers continue to find ways to differentiate each ballad from each other. Piano ballads, slow, Radiohead-esque rock tunes, and orchestral pop compositions are some of the most notable directions traversed, with the latter two being the most rewarding in their executions (“Midnight Train” and “Too Good At Goodbyes”).
But the most promising avenue Smith goes down has nothing to do with an instrumental decision. “HIM” is most likely the greatest song Sam has released to date, and it all has to do with the lyrics. Smith is infamous for his lack of same-sex pronouns in many of his songs, so a song such as this, one that addresses his homosexuality so directly, is a bold lyrical direction for him and one that hopefully signifies more to come. He is one of the few openly gay male singers in mainstream pop music, and his embracing of his position gives him a perspective rarely covered, no matter the gender.
However, as much as its gloominess is integral to Sam’s music, there are spots on The Thrill of it All where the sun shines through the clouds. “One Last Song” and “Baby, You Make Me Crazy,” while they can’t necessarily be described as “danceable,” are the uptempo affairs of the project. The former’s staccato piano keys and high-pitched soul samples make it a peppy, radio-ready track and the latter is a wonderful throwback to the Motown sound. What both of these two tracks have in common is Sam’s ability to sound quite natural over instrumental not usually associated with his style. These two tracks show that if he ever wanted to move towards greener musical pastures, Smith would have the capability to do so.
Obviously, it’s great news that Sam Smith has sharpened his sound since his debut record. In a pop music landscape dominated by trap rap and alternative R&B, he and fellow Brit Adele hold a unique position. However, as The Thrill of It All carries many of the same strengths and weaknesses as its predecessors, how long Smith will be able to stick to this sound without becoming a redundant artist comes into question.
He has proven with tracks like “Baby, You Make Me Crazy” and even his collaborations with Disclosure that he is capable in moving in new directions. Whether he decides to stick to his guns, move in either of those aforementioned directions, or make a completely unexpected artistic shift may determine whether the follow-up to The Thrill of It All will continue the upward trend we have seen from Smith’s records at this point in time.