I want to like Sam Smith. I really do.
Everyone else seems to like him, don’t they. Or at least that’s what it looks like. They buy his music in droves. His debut album, In The Lonely Hour rode on the coattails of Adele’s confessionals and seemed to convince everyone that Sam Smith knew something about the human experience. About love and loss. Despite the fact that he wrote about a relationship that didn’t actually exist and songs like ‘Stay With Me’ and ‘Lay Me Down’ are on the wrong side of saccharine.
The material of Smith’s debut certainly struck a chord with the general public, but it always seemed insincere to a degree. That Smith was pulling on people’s heartstrings and mining everyone else’s personal lives for experiences and feelings that he didn’t believe in, in an effort to sell records.
This may be a very cynical way of looking at popular music and God knows other people have gotten away with it too (see: Adele’s happily married, post-21 career) but something about Sam Smith irked me.
And it wasn’t just because the music was boring. It seemed like, if you were going to shine a light on Smith himself, the whole thing would disappear. How much can you truly be invested in an artist’s music if the artist themselves really doesn’t believe a word of what they’re saying?
Still, the best thing about pop music is that there’s always room for redemption. Debut albums are a funny thing, anyway. You have to make your mark, and you have to make it quickly, you’ll fade away quickly otherwise. Smith wasn’t a bad artist, per se, but a lazy one. Playing on decades old tropes and riffing off songs about heartbreak from the past and re-inventing them for the modern era. Maybe, I thought, his second album would change that.
Smith has said time and time again that the late, great George Michael is one of his biggest musical influences. And why wouldn’t he be? Not just a fearless queer pop icon (as I’ve discussed before), Michael’s music was bursting from the seems with sex and sexuality, all propped up by killer beats riffing off from funk, disco and R&B.
Following on from Michael’s death, Smith seemed to go through something of a resurgence. He lost a lot of weight, for one, and disappeared from view for about a year and a half. He worked with people like Stargate and Timbaland, who have made some pretty exemplary pop music in their time. When he re-emerged his hair was shorter, his ears were pierced and seemed that, even if for just one glittering second, that he might carry on the torch of Michael’s legacy and make some extraordinary music.
But things came grounding to a resounding halt on Smith’s second album, The Thrill Of It All. Nice title though, right? The mention of a ‘thrill’ conjures up images of a funky confessional of the giddy highs of truly falling in love, or lust, with someone for the first time. Bangers were surely on the way, right?
Wrong. To call the music of Smith’s second album a step above his debut would ignore that he has, actually, just re-made the same album with the same songs and just called it a different name. It’s not a step forward, it’s not even a step back. It’s music made while stationary; not moving, frozen. Scared to change things up or swerve in a different direction just in case it puts off the people that bought your music before.
Songs like the maudlin lead single ‘Too Good At Goodbyes,’ ‘Say It First’ and ‘Pray,’ aren’t just boring. They’re uninspired. The promotion around the album has made it clear that this album is in fact about a real relationship; one that lasted around five months before breaking down. Clearly, this time around, there’s real emotions and feelings that Smith is dealing with. That’s not the problem. The problem is is that Smith and his collaborators have been unable to find a different way to say the same things again. What’s the point in repeating yourself if you don’t at least try to improve, or even change, the formula?
If you’re taking this article as a way to say that Sam Smith is shit then you’d be wrong. It’s not that Smith himself is shit. I mean, the can sing. Like, really sing. There’s no taking that away from him. It’s just the fact that he’s so blatantly run out of ideas. The Thrill Of It All is the most blandly uninspired album that you’ll hear all year. It reaches for something to say about relationships – mainly that someone else’s love is fickle even if yours still endures – but chokes.
The best song of Sam Smith’s career is a song that was included on his debut EP. It’s called ‘Nirvana’ and it was even remixed for inclusion on the re-release of his debut album. It has a stuttering, sexy bass line and a vocal performance from Smith that radiates passion and desperation as he howls “will you take me to Nirvana?” And this seems to be a sentiment that Smith himself agrees with. He told Buzzfeed that “it was really off the cuff – it feels like an ad-lib. And it’s the closest to sexy I think I’ve ever got.”
The Thrill Of It All needed more songs like ‘Nirvana,’ it has got a soul. It’s got plenty of that. But it needed that little spark of passion, of lust, to really make sure that it wasn’t just a re-tread of the tired tropes that littered Smith’s debut.
Like I said, I want to like Sam Smith. I really do. But he makes it very hard.
Words by George Griffiths