“That high lonesome sound” is an old bluegrass term, but it ought to be co-opted for Sam Smith. If you’re not paying attention to “The Thrill of It All” as it plays, you might assume he’s already well up into his falsetto … until, of course, he startles you by actually going there. Emotionally, meanwhile, Smith is striving for how-low-can-you-go honors. He’s pop’s most heavenly limbo artist.
Extended comparisons to fellow Brit and longtime pal Adele are inevitable: Both assess, correctly, that being the most vocally indomitable singers of their generation will earn them a pass on having to add any bangers amid their wonderful bummers. And they also dominated the Grammys in their respective breakout years. But while Adele followed up her award-winning “21” with the rather more rote “25,” Smith has reversed the equation, succeeding 2014’s “In the Lonely Hour” with the considerably more impressive “Thrill of It All.” Adele’s pain didn’t feel quite as lived in by the time she came back, post-motherhood. Smith, in his interim, has found ways as a lyricist to find fresh nuance in old breakup themes, on top of just being able to make every note feel like a larynx-shaped teardrop.
He also seems to have spent the last three years on his studies — that is, taking copious mental notes on what made soul records like Sam Cooke’s classics. There’s an essential sparseness to virtually all the songs on “The Thrill of It All” that sounds positively bizarre in 2017, albeit not so strange that the leadoff single, “Too Good at Goodbyes,” didn’t immediately become an anachronistic smash. That representative hit relies mostly on piano, finger snaps, eventually a choir and, finally, deep into the song — novelty of novelties — actual drums. Few of the other tracks add much more, though some very ’60s-esque rhythm guitar licks occasionally replace the ivories, and the Dap-King horns put in an appearance. A smattering of programmed percussion makes it clear no one’s being retro for retro’s sake. The record may be, first and foremost, a master class in white R&B phrasing, but it’s also an advanced placement course in how to spatially position the instrumentalists in minimalist soul music.
Too much sadness can be a drag, yet there’s enough variety to the subthemes of the splitsville ballads that by the time 10 songs have passed by in an economical 38 minutes, it feels like Smith’s lived up to that old maxim, “Leave ’em wanting more melancholia.” (Well, it should be an old maxim.) In “Too Good at Goodbyes,” he’s doing a preemptive breakup, a hard case protecting his soft shell, firing his lover before he can be quit on. He’s also doing the leaving in “Midnight Train,” regretfully and conscientiously enough that he wonders, “Am I a monster? / What will your family think of me?” as he’s boarding the getaway car, while a guitar lick that’s halfway between Otis Redding and Radiohead’s “Creep” builds sweet tension. “Burning,” which barely ever rises above its a cappella opening, finds him lamenting the aftermath of abandonment, with no social or emotional backup plan: “No friends to turn to / Yeah, I messed that up.”
But who needs friends, with pals at radio? In the almost weirdly jubilant, gospel-inflected “One Last Song,” Smith knows he can get the last word in with an ex who’s refuses to take his calls since their dissolution, by embedding his farewell in a hit song. Like Donna Summer before him, he knows they’re gonna hear him on their radios.
“Baby You Make Me Crazy” is the other truly upbeat-sounding track on the album, with the horns turned up from latent to blatant, and a sing-along chorus that belies the pathos of asides like “Why do I always fall for the ones who have no courage?” “No Peace” lives up to its name in most ways, yet it gets some buoyancy by adding a duet part from a gifted, essentially unknown female singer out of Arkansas named YEBBA — the only “featured” appearance on the album, and a showcase that Smith is too good-hearted or wise to waste on a fellow superstar. And in the otherwise downtrodden “Palace,” he repeats, “Real love is never a waste of time” — the mantra any true romantic believes, even if he’s doing a sell job on himself.
Smith goes for something more statement-like in the hyper-dramatic “Him” and “Pray.” In the latter anthem, co-produced by Timbaland, he’s singing as a conversion-considering nonbeliever, looking at “the world … on fire” and declaring that “everyone prays in the end.” (Smith apparently believes there are no atheists in 2017 foxholes.) But the album’s real attention-getter might be “Him,” a song that addresses a different kind of lonesomeness — the isolation of being gay in a religion or region (“Holy Father” and “Mississippi” both come in for name dropping) where mores are far from keeping up with the times. Working that gender-specific pronoun into not just a lyric but a title counts as bold, even in 2017, and even for a singer who’s been openly gay in public, if not so specifically so in his lyrics.
“The Thrill of It All” is easily one of the best pop albums of the year, and not just because it’s so brilliantly despondent. Believe it or not, the collection does contain some actual contentedness — but only on a couple of extra tracks on the 14-song deluxe edition. One of these, “Scars,” may be unique in the annals of pop stars writing about their parents: In alternate verses, the artist first addresses his mother, then his father, thanking them both for having had such a peaceful, fulfilling… divorce. Now, you may be thinking that may seem odd that a song about a legal separation could go down as the happiest song on anyone’s album, even Smith’s. But in his perpetually broken-hearted world, an honestly loving split may count as the greatest love of all.