In the years leading up to his sophomore record, Sam Smith has been busy leading a double life. On one hand, he has won four Grammys and an Oscar; on the other, he has been private, visiting Iraq for philanthropic work and going out clubbing in London. The three years between records are what bled into the fabric of “The Thrill of It All,” and while the album offers some brilliance, it is at a loss as to what it is and what it is supposed to be. His double life created in turn a fractured album in conflict with itself.
The promotion of the record has focused more or less on the album’s blatantly honest, personal nature – that with this album, Smith was being open as never before, hence the stripped-down portrait of him on the album cover, looking slightly over the viewer. Albums that draw their source material from personal experiences are somewhat of a risk for the artist – the curtain of fame that separates the public persona from the real artist is lifted, if only for a moment, for the audience to peep under. If one looks closely enough to pick out all the references, the person behind the curtain will reveal himself. The problem with “The Thrill” is that Smith, although willing to be vulnerable, does it in a risk-free environment. The album is too calculated to be raw – it works way too hard to evoke a certain sentimentality that is not easily accessible. The lead single, “Too Good at Goodbyes,” feels like an emotional oxymoron – if Smith is the one being left, why is he such a brilliant abandoner? For such a personal record, it plays it perhaps too safe, in order to appeal to a general audience, with songs seemingly created to be played in between others on a passerby’s radio, or in a deserted mall on a Sunday night.
Being a twenty-something single person is a condition as universal and timeless as it is extremely singular and contemporary. All of our friends go through the same party-induced, self-reflective patterns that we do, but the beauty of it all lies in the distinct emotional cylinder we all exist in separately. Such experiences are hard to articulate inside the confines of mainstream artistry, but some performers reach these heights of emotion, even in pop – Lorde’s “Melodrama” and MGMT’s “Oracular Spectacular” are giants of this genre, reflecting on the quirky patchwork of being in love, being lost, being found, and never learning from your mistakes and doing it all over again. “The Thrill of It All” promises to be a testament for our times, perhaps an ode to our generation, but it contains nothing of the deranged hedonism Smith says it is dedicated to. The album is too palatable and, more often than not, boring. The indistinguishable ballads become wearisome after a couple of spins, and you wonder why the artist even bothered.
The fault lies not with Smith’s vocal performance, or even his songwriting – there are few vocalists as talented as he, with a range that allows him to jump from falsetto to tenor in a heartbeat. The album’s evident downfall is in the production, or the in conflicts thereof. As the melodies include everything from key arrangements to gospel singers to hip-hop beats, the album is at a loss with regard to what unifies it. Not a single song on the album captures loneliness with the same brilliance as “I’m Not the Only One,” Smith’s fourth single from his debut.
I don’t think that in 2017 it is sufficient enough for a pop artist to just release a “decent” album. Pop is currently at its most introspective, and this period is no doubt creating sensible, thought- and emotion-provoking albums that challenge the mainstream listener and demand an unforeseen emotional response from him/her. Sam Smith may want a place for his work in the canon – as the thinking man/woman’s pop – but he has to do more than just show up at the party. For an album titled “The Thrill of It All,” it bears no thrills at all.
Notable Songs: “Pray,” “The Thrill of It All”