The Thrill Of It All (Capitol)
The Catholic Sam Smith would understand the value of a patron saint, a figure to turn to whose life, in theory, offers examples of travails from which wisdom and spiritual growth emerged.
Or at least who got done over so badly by oppression/repression that life’s end offered a kind of great sacrifice that ennobled previous sins. With the bonus that this end then earned brownie points to intercede with the boss on your behalf.
Across two albums now, the Englishman whose first mark was made as the guest vocalist on a track by electronic outfit Disclosure and whose opening song here, Too Good At Goodbyes, channels mid ‘70s Bee Gees, has staked out his claim to the position of patron saint of heartbreak.
With a high, clear voice that brings ache to the table as naturally as breathing, Smith turns to a mix of quiet pop balladry, soft soul balladry, restrained gospel balladry and a smidgin of mild electro balladry to make songs about desire thwarted, love cast aside, being the outsider and, as a man for whom religion still matters, yearning for a reconciliation of faith and human nature.
That latter point is directly addressed (“say I shouldn’t be here/ but I can’t give up his touch/It is him I love”) in HIM, the “him” addressed being variously a father figure, a lover and the – presumed male – God.
But that balancing act serves as an underpinning to several other songs and to Smith’s central makeup. Not to mention connecting his pop roots to the church roots of the music which has influenced him most, so that he can add the choir to Pray with a straight face, and bring them back for Nothing Left For You without qualms.
The dilemma with Smith is that the personal anguish is real – you don’t grow up Catholic, gay and chubby without having felt some deep cuts, even before your heart gets broken - but the presentation is so anodyne that entreaties to “feel” begin to take on a pleading edge.
The combination of a voice which is highly attractive but lacking in genuine distinctiveness, lyrics which try hard for meaning but emerge leaning on comfortable tropes, and music which only occasionally inches past the most familiar routes, makes for surface comfort at the expense of deep emotion.
The problem with deep emotion of course is that it is risky. Not in exposure – I don’t think Smith fears that, as baring his soul is his story – but in vulnerability to flaws and failure. That Smith doesn’t leave room for either means The Thrill Of It All is prettily anonymous rather than personally moving.
That superficiality has worked for him so far with an audience that is happy to take simulacrums in politics, TV and music, so why change? Except for maybe the fact that to really matter, Smith’s songs could do with some sense that things really might break rather than be bruised.
Is that a sacrifice he’s willing, or able, to make?
SPOTIFY: Listen to Sam Smith’s The Thrill Of It All here
APPLE MUSIC: Listen to Sam Smith’s The Thrill Of It All here