The Thrill of It All: what makes Sam Smith special

It’s a well-known fact that Sam Smith has one of the best voices in the modern music landscape. Like his fellow English expat, Adele, he’s capable of stirring emotions—love and heartbreak, mainly, but also anger, indignation, and hope—deep within listeners’ souls with only a few notes. His ability to transport an audience directly into his world is part of what made his GRAMMY-winning debut, In The Lonely Hour, so stunning. Listeners may have begun the album with no idea who Sam Smith was, but they finished knowing him deeper than many of their closest friends, having felt what he had felt, seen what he’d seen, and heard what he’d heard. Though his follow-up, The Thrill of It All, incorporates more instruments and voices into his previously bare-bones sound, his beautiful voice, heart wrenching lyrics, and gift for musical transportation remain intact.

The first half of the album is particularly strong due to Smith’s experimentation with new genres. “One Last Song” positions Smith as a swinging Motown diva pleading drunkenly and desperately for an ex-lover’s attention. Backed by the Dap-Kings Horns, he belts a typically catchy yet emotional chorus: “When it was good it was bittersweet, honey/You made me sad ‘till I loved the shade of blue/I know you don’t want to talk to me, so this is what I will do/Maybe you’re listening, so here’s one last song for you.” “Baby, You Make Me Crazy” employs a similar doo-wop sound and an excellent falsetto chorus to display a romantic resilience absent from the sadder, more lovelorn tracks from In The Lonely Hour. “Say It First” includes Smith’s version of a tropical house beat drop in the chorus, when the melancholy guitar of the verses mixes with a vaguely rap-esque drum machine and a cut up, pitched down vocal refrain. The song is unique in that it’s one of the only happy Sam Smith love songs. Although he is reluctant to open himself up to his partner until he says “I love you,” Smith’s beautiful low vocals in the verses project a newfound sense of optimism and hope in regards to love.

  While the first half of The Thrill Of It All only contains two missteps—the forgettable “Midnight Train” and the first single, In The Lonely Hour reject “Too Good At Goodbyes”—the back half is more uneven. “No Peace,” the first on-album duet of his career, finds him and the Ed-Sheeran-cosigned YEBBA trading verses about their personal hardships over minimal backing music; though they both sound lovely, the track is forgotten almost immediately after it ends, eclipsed by the sheer power of Smith on his own. It’s followed by “Palace,” a cobbled-together folk ballad seemingly from a Game-Of-Thrones-esque time when there were palaces controlling Europe. The lush, rhythmic sound of his other songs is replaced here by a choppily twanging Irish guitar; instead of being a bold new sonic direction, it’s just jarring and annoying to listen to. It’s a real shame Smith’s best falsetto is wasted on this song, particularly when it’s used to sing clichéd odes to “real love” that could’ve been written by any pop songwriter of the past fifty years. The title track is also a low point of the album, though at least it returns Smith to fairly normal form—orchestral production, a falsetto-based chorus and bridge, lovelorn lyrics—and sounds merely forgettable rather than actually unpleasant.

  Interestingly, though, two of the best three songs on The Thrill Of It All come from the final seven tracks: “Scars” and “Pray.” “Scars” is possibly the biggest tearjerker Smith has released yet. Instead of covering romantic love or even loss, it describes the relationship he has with his divorced parents. By reserving a verse for his mom and one for his dad, he is able to explain his feelings about them each in-depth with a level of maturity and care largely absent from music today. It’s an absolute must-listen, nearly impossible to adequately describe with words—the mark of truly great art. “Pray” is also new territory for Smith in variety of ways: produced by Timbaland, the song is his most R&B-flavored outing yet, and is also his first to grapple with real-world issues instead of his own love life. “I’m young and I’m foolish, I make bad decisions/I block out the news, turn my back on religion/Don’t have no degree, I’m somewhat naïve/I’ve made it this far on my own,” the track opens. “But lately that shit ain’t been getting me higher/I open my eyes and the world is on fire.” Inspired by a trip to Iraq, the song goes on to detail Smith reconciling his disdain for religion with a need to call out to someone for help with the horrible events currently occurring around the world. It’s both deeply personal to the artist and applicable to everyone who hears it; no matter what religion you are or aren’t, “everyone prays in the end” for some way to solve the world’s issues. Smith also mines religion and social issues, albeit in a much more personal way, for first-half standout “HIM,” a heavily gospel-influenced story of a boy coming out as gay to God. His firm, melancholy voice is hair-raisingly emotional as he sings, “Don’t you try to tell me that God doesn’t care for us/It is him I love, it is him I love,” and becomes even more powerful as it blends together with a full gospel choir during the bridge. It’s impossible not to sit in stunned silence for a moment after listening to it.

  Those three songs—and, indeed, the vast majority of The Thrill Of It All—perfectly exemplifies what makes Sam Smith so special: he evokes feelings, desires, and reactions with his music that cannot be described with words. All that can be said is listen.