Review: Sam Smith – The Thrill of It All

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Smith's soulful vocal, impressive vocal range, and ability to mesmerise his listener and take them on his journey, make his second offering everything we'd hoped for!

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Following his 2014 Brit-award winning first album, In the Lonely Hour, and his chart-topping and critically acclaimed comeback single ‘Too Good at Goodbyes‘, it would be no understatement to say Sam Smith‘s second album – The Thrill of It All – has been very eagerly awaited. And, to put it bluntly, Smith doesn’t disappoint. Stunning vocals, meaningful lyrics, cleverly deployed diversity in beat and rhythm and its authentic soulful feel mean that Smith’s second offering manages to meet the incredibly high bar set by his debut.

True enough: the album’s title seems to border on sarcasm. The album’s focus on emotional despair – especially in the context of failed relationships and heartbreak – leave little ‘thrill’ in sight. Though to say the album amounts to little more than a voyage into Smith’s emotional disparity would sell it short. Admittedly, some songs reflect solely on heartbreak: the lead single ‘Too Good At Goodbyes’ focuses in on an inability to progress emotionally. But Smith develops as the album progresses. In ‘Scars’ the acoustic backing and faster-paced vocal give the song a sense of uplift and progress which is absent from ‘Midnight Train’ or ‘Burning’. Smith here thanks his mother and father for “clearing up his scars”.

‘Baby, You Make Me Crazy’ is then much more upbeat, using a jazzy-style backing which means, even though the lyrics reflect on a past relationships, there is a definitive shift from sadness over the past to a contempt happiness over the good times, and an ability to move on to pastures new (“I’m gonna play my rhythm/ get you out my system/ I will do anything to keep you off my mind”). The song ends with a rousing chorus that elaborates on the sense of community and shows the progression from the isolation that engulfs earlier tracks. Furthermore, if Smith had placed a typical ‘pop’ song in there – for the sake of additional diversity – it would have felt both out of place and ruined the album’s real sense of soulful authenticity. Against the ‘heartbreak overload’ critics, I say that the album employs its own clever sense of diversity, and does it well.

Of course what truly stands out is Smith’s empowering vocal. This extends beyond merely his impressive range and pitch. He employs excellent vocal control across the album. In ‘Pray’, he controls his softer range and then builds up to the higher notes. This ensures his vocal has the full effect by not ‘overdoing it’ (I reflect here on Kesha‘s recent album Rainbow which ended up becoming too vocally dense). Smith’s light-and-shade continues throughout the album. In title track, ‘The Thrill of It All’, he shows the full extent of his range with great ease. Smith makes his overwhelmingly challenged vocal seem effortless and this is the skill here, and what makes him so distinct from Sia’s vocal which feels more challenging. Finally – then – the choice of the duet with YEBBA on ‘No Peace’ was a good one. Their voices compliment each other well, and the force of them singing to each other separates the song from the rest of the album. The track truly feels like a dialogue.

Comparisons to Adele‘s 25 are inevitable: both vocally dominate. I’m tempted, however, to say that Smith’s The Thrill of It All tops 25. Come 2015 much of Adele’s emotional outpouring seemed more commercial than authentic. What comes across more than anything is how real Smith’s words are. In the closing number ‘One Day At a Time’ he talks about being “so lost lately” that “we’ve forgotten who we are”, but attempting to live-in-the-now and appreciate what we all have in the present. Against a basic guitar backing, the emotional sincerity of Smith’s words is extremely powerful and you really feel his soul. Equally, in ‘Say It First’ when asking his darling to ‘do your worst’ against the almost dreamy backing, his sense of honest reflection is overpowering. Smith is exposing everything.

True, the album is sad. It’s not the stuff of pre-drinks. But its mesmerisingly sad: it has a novel beauty that few others manage to achieve. I’ve given the album five-stars because for me, it resembles Smith perfectly, and shows off what meaningful lyrics, strong vocal, clever song composition – and most importantly – an honest sense of soul can achieve. For me, this is one of the best albums released this year, ahead of competitors like Ed Sheeran or P!nk. True, it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. But when did any album need to achieve this?

The Thrill of It All is out now via Capitol Records

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Philosopher and Historian and major pop-fan. You can find me listening to most pop in the charts (Beyoncé and Sia are most certainly goddesses), as well as some modern jazz and classical and enjoing the occasional trip to the theatre. I'm also interested in the repurcussions of the representation of sex in modern-day media! And I might be a fan of the X Factor. Sorry, I can't help it...

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