Sam Smith: The Thrill of It All review sanitised soul meets genuine despair | Alexis Petridis’ album of the week

An outpouring of authentically moving romantic misery, this could have joined the ranks of the all-time great breakup albums if only the backing music werent so stale

As Sam Smith recently tearfully confessed to a New York Times journalist, the songs on his second album were provoked by the collapse of a five-month relationship. On the one hand, this sounds like a pretty sad state of affairs. On the other, you cant help thinking: ker-ching!

Its over 60 years since Frank Sinatra poured the misery of his disintegrating marriage to Ava Gardner into In the Wee Small Hours, and the breakup album has been with us ever since. Yet theyve seldom been so much of a commercial force as in the last decade or so. Everyone from Coldplay to Kanye West seems to have one Taylor Swift appears to produce nothing but. The two most commercially successful British releases of this century are breakup albums: Amy Winehouses Back to Black and Adeles 21, the latter such a blockbuster that it spawned a sequel. When it came time to follow up the 30m-selling smash, the now happily married singer simply returned to picking over a failed relationship presumably the same one that had inspired its predecessor shifting another 20m albums in the process. Youd have to go back 40 years, to Fleetwood Macs Rumours, to find the multifarious sorrows of the failed relationship selling product in such quantity. Never mind, plenty more fish in the sea, and besides, think of the sales figures.

But that kind of cynicism is hard to maintain in the face of The Thrill of It Alls outpouring of genuinely moving lyrical misery, occasionally spiked with mordant wit. Striking lines abound: Everyone prays in the end. Im going to have to call my sisters anything to drown you out tonight. On Midnight Train, standard sad song cliches about walking away and missing your touch suddenly give way to affecting, clearly personal details: Am I a monster? What will your family think of me? / They brought me in, they helped me out with everything. Other tracks come at romantic despair from intriguing angles. Burning obsesses about taking up smoking in the aftermath of the breakup, aware of how faintly pathetic this act of rebellion seems.


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On the rare occasion it shifts its gaze away from the vagaries of love, The Thrill of It All alights on an equally unlikely topic for a mainstream pop album: Him appears to be a song about Smith squaring homosexuality with Christian faith, after visiting parts of the US where the church still presents the two as mutually exclusive. The lyrics effect is amplified by Smiths voice, noticeably rougher-sounding here than on his debut. It occasionally rasps and cracks on the high notes or takes on a choked quality, as if hes on the verge of tears. He sounds authentically wracked with misery and regret. On No Peace, a duet with a singer called Yebba, his leaps into falsetto have a slightly unhinged eeriness about them, at odds with his guest vocalists controlled performance.

This is pretty full-blooded stuff considering the area of mainstream pop in which Smith operates namely: the place where the Radio 1 and 2 playlists overlap. Its just a shame that its accompanied by such pallid music. The Thrill of It All sets out its stall between sterilised retro soul tricked out with massed gospel-like backing vocals on the choruses and horns courtesy of Amy Winehouses old collaborators the Dap-Kings and <a draggable=”true” href=”″ data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>X&Y-era Coldplay, whose shadow looms large over the echoing guitars on Say It First and the piano balladry of Burning. Unlike Smiths vocals, which effectively communicate real longing and emotional distress, the music sounds like a facsimile of soul: the sounds are there, but any trace of grit has been expunged. In fairness, the songs arent bad Palace and Midnight Train are decent replicas of the kind of lovelorn Southern soul that emanated from Alabamas Fame Studios in the late 60s (had Fame Studios and everyone in it been thoroughly sprayed with disinfectant) but theyre weighed down by the slick staleness of the arrangements. Theres nothing here that anyone with even a passing interest in pop music hasnt heard umpteen times before.

Its a shame, and a missed opportunity. Theres a certain power to The Thrill of It All, but it could have been a much more potent album if theyd laid off the polish just a little. Still, none of this is likely to harm Smiths chances of replicating the multiplatinum success of his debut <a draggable=”true” href=”” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>In the Lonely Hour. If Adeles contributions to the canon of breakup albums taught us anything, its that millions of people around the world arent averse to more of the same.

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