Sam Smith: King of the modern love song
After a three year absence, British vocalist Sam Smith is back, and as cliche as it sounds, he is better than ever. With his sophomore album, The Thrill of it All, Smith exploits and emphasizes all of the pieces that made his debut project, In the Lonely Hour, a huge hit, giving listeners a record that is Sam Smith to the max. Piano-driven beats, a forty-piece background choir and the singer’s out-of-this-world vocal talent are the primary components of Smith's formula for love-song success, and they all make The Thrill of it All a gripping album. These proven pieces are met with Smith’s new and obvious musical growth, and when combined with a venture into the artist’s relatively undiscussed homosexuality, they convey one major thing: Smith is the king of the modern pop love song.
The album’s first track, “Too Good at Goodbyes,” is a pleasant kick in the teeth, an enjoyable overload of all things Sam Smith. It opens with the classic Smith-piano combo that listeners so thoroughly enjoyed on In the Lonely Hour. This sound is comfortable for both Smith and the listener, and plays right into the aforementioned love-song formula (piano + voice = really good Sam Smith love song), making it the perfect way to open an album with weight and anticipation. At this point, the singer is warming the listener up for what’s to come; instead of throwing us head-first into cold and unfamiliar water, Smith guides us slowly down the steps feet-first into the shallow end so we can properly acclimate to the temperature. Eventually, the track picks up with a bouncy beat and infectious melody — it’s new, but it feels and sounds like your forgotten favorite track from a few years ago. When the massive choir hits (the “choir” is typically just a massive layering of Smith’s vocals), it’s all over; the song is “Stay With Me” times ten, and the listener has no choice but to submit to the power of the love song.
Many of the songs on the album follow this same trend. They are built on something comfortable and familiar, and many could have easily appeared on In the Lonely Hour, but Smith introduces something new and fresh that is just enough to make the tracks exciting, rather than obsolete. “Say It First” is grounded on a gloomy, guitar-driven beat that is right in Smith’s wheelhouse, but the chorus introduces electronic vocals akin to something Diplo might endorse. “One Last Song” opens with a sliced and pitched-up vocal sample that one could hear on a Kanye West track, but it quickly falls into a classic and infallible 6/8 shuffle that Smith murders with his soulful belting. This tactic is safe and pragmatic; Smith knows what works, and he blends the proven with the experimental to remind the world of his talent. He’s grown as an artist over the past three years, and the proof is in the pudding.
Smith is most at the vanguard on “HIM,” a song that professes Smith’s homesexuality in bold, and details his personal struggle. The track opens with, “Holy Father, we need to talk / I have a secret that I can’t keep,” addressing his pain head-on; raised religious and educated in catholic school, it’s not surprising that the now openly-gay vocalist has struggled with the implications of his sexual orientation. In the chorus, Smith sends a message to the world, singing, “Don’t you try to tell me that God doesn’t care for us / It is him I love, it is him I love.” This song marks the first instance in which Smith explicitly discusses his sexuality in his music, contributing to the already established trend of blending new with old.
While some might get tired of Smith’s tales of unrequited love, such is the singer’s brand, and at a short and sweet 35 minutes, The Thrill of it All will certainly not dampen your thoughts with ideas of heartbreak. Take a half-hour out of your day to indulge in the moving love songs and other-worldly voice of the self-professed diva boy — you won’t regret it.
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The Thrill of It All