After capturing our hearts with songs of heartbreak and desperation like “Stay With Me” and “I’m Not the Only One,” Sam Smith has returned with his sophomore album, The Thrill of It All.
The highly anticipated follow-up to In the Lonely Hour comes after a three-year hiatus for the singer-songwriter and features a matured Smith moving on from the loneliness of his first album to explore more personal themes. Religion, sexuality and the magnitude of fame he’s reached are prominent subjects threaded through various songs in Smith’s new album.
But while his lyrics are certainly undergoing a thematic evolution, his signature sound remains largely the same. Piano ballads featuring his characteristic high falsetto on top of a gospel chorus make up nearly every one of the album’s songs. It’s often difficult for artists to balance developing the voice that made them famous and evolving their sound into something new. In this case, Sam Smith clearly sticks to what he does best, highlighting his beautiful and dramatic vocals, but after an album and a half of the same style, it begins to feel stale.
In an interview with Billboard, Smith talked about album opener and first-released single “Too Good At Goodbyes” as a continuation of his relationship narratives from his first album.
“I just wanted to come back with something that updated you on my love life,” said Smith, “which is still going terribly.” The song immediately establishes a change in pace from quiet somberness of his previous album, as Smith sings about protecting himself from opening up in a tumultuous relationship.
In one of the slower songs on the album, “Midnight Train,” Smith goes for an almost retro style, singing about walking away from a love that has become unhealthy. The reverberating electric guitar playing a minor progression in the background combined with hints of doo-wop in the “Bah-bah doos” of the chorus effectively create a nostalgic ambiance that complements the melancholic lyrics.
Though Smith is openly gay, his songs have been relatively vague in the pronouns used to describe his lovers — that is, up until the sixth track, “Him,” in which he proclaims his sexuality with one of the most powerful and standout songs on the album. An LGBTQ+ anthem in the making, Sam Smith sings, “Don’t you try and tell me that God doesn’t care for us / It is him I love, it is him I love,” describing the struggle of reconciling a religious background with one’s sexuality. He makes use of a fuller voice in much of the song as it builds up to the bridge, which further draws upon gospel, with traces even of 1960s spirituals. Smith riffs and hums over the percussion and surging rhythm of the voices of the choir, creating a sensation that is as ominous as it is empowering.
He moves on to talk about the effect his rise to fame had on him in “Burning” (as well as “The Thrill of It All”), which he calls his most personal song.
“I started going out too much, not respecting myself, drinking loads and smoking. … It wasn’t good,” said Smith — paralleling the lyrics of “I’ve been burning, yes, I’ve been burning / Such a burden, this flame on my chest” — as he struggles to make sense of the fame and responsibility he has gained in such a short amount of time.
With subdued backing instrumentation until the gospel chorus joins in near the end, “Burning” follows the standard Sam Smith formula. He relies on the dramatic changes in his vocal registers and long riffs and runs, as he also does in “Pray,” to convey most of the emotion in the songs — but we can’t help but crave a bit more diversity in tempo and beat and a divergence from this baseline in different ways.
With The Thrill of It All, Sam Smith definitely takes us on more of an emotional journey, exploring a variety of different aspects of his life and his relationships that expand upon his debut album. Falling prey to some redundancy in form and structure of the songs, the album might not be quite thrilling, but it remains a reflective and evocative sequel that introduces us to more of Sam Smith as a person.