By Gregg Casazza – 1851 Staff
When Sam Smith released the first single off of his sophomore album “Too Good at Goodbyes,” a stark, yet safe piano ballad which harkened back to his first LP, fans wondered if this new album “The Thrill of it All” would just be more of the same. For an artist who has stirred up so much controversy over his relatively short time in the public spotlight, Smith tends to take very minimal risks with his music.
Adult contemporary often falls into the trap of “same-song syndrome” and with this being his second full length LP, the British singer starts out the album resting comfortably in the carefully carved out musical niche of wallowing sadness for an unrequited love. In fact, even the most avid fans of Smith would likely have a difficult time placing many of these songs in their appropriate album. Tracks like “Say it First,” “One Last Song,” and “Midnight Train” could fit just as easily on his 2014 LP as they do on his second effort.
The first half of this album acts as a liaison between his two albums, borrowing much of the same affectations and instrumentation of the 7x Platinum 2014 success. In fact, “One Last Song” is a send off to the same man much of Smith’s first album was about, a fitting conclusion to that melancholy chapter.
Where the album really starts to hit its stride is when it diverges from this formula. On the gospel-inspired track, “HIM,” Smith focuses on the religious complications of a gay relationship. Unlike the tonally similar track “Lay with Me,” Smith tackles this issue head-on for the first time, with a newfound strength and confidence. Smith is fueled by scorned rage on “Nothing Left for You” and begins to take a more active role in his own relationships, no longer pining over the object of his devotion. Smith continues to break the mold with the Doo-Wop tinged “Baby, You Make Me Crazy,” which acts as a sort of spiritual successor to Britney Spears’s “(You Drive Me) Crazy,” an interesting pop-leaning additional to the singer’s traditionally somber repertoire.
Gospel sounds and chamber music are interwoven throughout the album, such as on the the duet “No Peace” featuring newcomer YEBBA, and the Timbaland produced “Pray,” which acted as the second official single for the album. If “Too Good at Goodbyes,” represented Smith’s old sound, then “Pray” represents the new. Although still deeply rooted in vocal prowess, the song offers elevated production, spacier percussion, and the first authentic attempt at social commentary by an otherwise introspective singer.
Smith has grown as an artist, and the wallowing pity that was center stage for much of his discography takes the passenger seat on this new LP. Smith looks back at relationships with less sentimentality, but rather with a fresh dose of reality. “The Thrill of it All” is a departure from his previous work, and one which shows a surprising amount of versatility, and an eagerness to evolve as a musician. If “The Thrill of it All” tells us anything, it’s that Sam Smith still has a few tricks up his sleeve.