When an Italian journalist interviewed Sam Smith a few weeks ago, he asked the British singer about his reputation as a male version of Adele. “I’m tired of being labeled as the male version of Adele,” responded Smith, clearly bothered by the non-question.
Sam Smith, who has just released his sophomore album, has very little to prove at this point of his career. He’s got 4 Grammys, one Oscar, a handful of global hit songs and two No. 1 albums on his resumė. Considering that he will probably be nominated for a few more Grammys in 2019 (the new record came out too late in the year to be included in the 2018 nominees), it is unfair to insist on labeling him in relation to a different singer.
The Thrill of it All, released on November 3, came more than three years after its predecessor, In The Lonely Hour, the enormously successful first studio effort of the London-born singer and songwriter. It’s not easy to replicate an album’s success—especially when the success came with one’s debut. But the Thrill reached No. 1 on the U.S. chart on its first week since the release, a feat that his colleague Lorde also performed last summer with Melodrama.
Last time we heard from Smith, he was admitting, “I guess it’s true, I’m not good at a one-night stand/ Won’t you stay with me?”
It takes nine seconds into the new album to hear that things have changed. “You must think that I’m stupid, you must think that I’m a fool,” he sings now, leaving behind the naivety that caused so much of the Lonely Hour’s heartbreak. “I’m way too good at goodbyes.”
In the Thrill, Smith appears to be claiming his ground—reminding us what he’s capable of doing with just a microphone and a piano—and showing how much he’s grown over the last three years, as a man and as an artist. He does not depart from the intimate, emotionally charged sound we’ve known him for. And yet he also explores new lyrical domains and charms the listener with some of the most convincing soulful pop I’ve heard lately.
Smith addresses for the first time his coming out as a gay man in Him, a heart-wrenching song dedicated to a “Holy Father,” who could be both God and a biological father: “I’m not the boy you thought you wanted.” It’s an intimate, painful moment, and yet Smith succeeds in going through the whole song in a focused and resolute tone. In his simple lyrics, he includes a series of different themes—father and son relationships, religion and homosexuality, and the struggle of society to accept LGBTQ people.
The theme of religion returns a few songs later in the excellent Pray, which Smith performed on Saturday Night Live in October.
The Thrill becomes less convincing when Smith abuses of his falsetto. In Life Support, one of the last tracks of his debut record, he strategically alternated between the lower and higher registers, masterfully playing with his precious voice while being very well-aware of the accompanying musical instruments and the lyrical content of the track. Here, Smith doesn’t always achieve such balance. On One Last Song, the falsetto on the chorus is inflated and loses its power. It’s a pity, because the song could have been the strongest for its melody, instrumentation and lyrics.
Although he’s discussed his struggle to deal with fame in several interviews, Smith does not sing about it directly in the album. He did write a couple of lyrics about social media and the attention he gets from the media in general, but also indirectly. In the final song on the record, the title-track, he sings: “I regret that I told the world that you were with me. And I regret how I showed the world that you were pretty,” possibly referring to a time when he publicized a relationship on Instagram.
It doesn’t matter if the story is raw, ugly or doesn’t end happily. It doesn’t matter if his lyrics depict him as naive or imperfect. It doesn’t matter if the music is unflattering. All that matters to Sam Smith, at this point, is that it’s authentic. And for that attribute alone he deserves another Grammy.