To the credit of 25 year old soul singer Sam Smith, he raises an important sociological question. Is quality indicative of value? Smith possesses a technically flawless voice, an emotive baritone that swoops and dives across a wide range (C3 – G5).
In the world of Pop, Smith is driving a Bugatti. So why does his music sound so bad?
It isn’t that The Thrill of It All is dour – no one is expecting a series of upbeat hair metal bangers from the inventor of the cry-wank himself. The problem is how truly unappealing this album is to a casual listener.
If you compare Smith to Adele, her music is at least very easy to enjoy. ‘Hello’ has a plodding pace but her voice itself bursts with life, it crackles with emotion and vitality.
Sam Smith sounds hopelessly overwrought; a drunken divorcee sniffling his way through ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ at karaoke.
‘Pray’ is a perfect storm of bad decisions. The chorus on ‘Pray’ is sung with hitherto unseen levels of over-sincerity, quavering between tenor and falsetto and utilising a litany of notes where only a few are needed. ‘Pray’ is one of the first times this year that a song has actually incited a wince – so staggeringly off the mark is the delivery.
If the delivery is obvious – then that is par for the course. The song invokes prayer, so who gets called up? A gospel choir is too obvious? No of course it isn’t, you silly twat. This is a song about faith – it simply must have random chorales that spring out of nowhere and jump-scare the listener like this is Jason Takes Manhattan.
The lyrics, meanwhile (“I’m not a saint, I’m more of a sinner”) are cribbed from The Total Hacks Guide To Writing A Spiritual. It is a dreadful song.
Smith is clearly aware of his amazing voice but instead of letting rip in carefully chosen bursts – to heighten emotion – he instead constantly sounds on the verge of a tumbling outpour of grief.
You may own a Buggati, but you don’t drive everywhere doing 70 do you?
Despite Smith’s drippy voice weighing down on everything like a sweating fat bag of indolence, when the music is allowed some breathing room it is melodic, punchy and classic.
There’s a dash of Motown elegance with some urbane R&B. Whether Smith is nicking the sounds of The xx (‘Say It First’) or Wilson Pickett (‘Midnight Train’) it sounds accomplished; likely a result of earnest artistic reverence.
It’s a polished pop album and well mixed, the performances (though undemanding) are good and the album sequences well.
If you sense a large ‘but’ coming then congrats on your ‘but’-senses because yes, there is a big ‘but’ – and that is that despite this, I am still where I started. I still don’t see why people are drawn to Smith or his voice.
The Thrill of It All may be a smooth smooth ride, but where to? What questions does it answer? It certainly shows that, yes, there really is no end to people willingly spending money to hear sad pianos – something that can be achieved by standing at any train station and listening to whichever gadabout is butchering ‘Nuvole Bianche’ in the station foyer.
Sam Smith can take the faintest drizzle of warm, piss-coloured praise here; he has somewhat improved. Even ‘Pray’ has one lyric that clicks – “we all pray in the end“ – a line that is painful and true, suggesting a truth and empathy lacking from this highly impersonal album. ‘HIM’ is a legitimate moment of passion and is the only song here that could have only come from Smith….or perhaps Perfume Genius.
The Thrill of It All contains approximately zero thrills – but gives an occasional peek into the performer that Sam Smith may one day become.