Earlier this year, there was a half-serious conspiracy theory floated by fans on Twitter that Adele and Sam Smith were the same person.
Hear them out: Both are white 20-something Brits who use the musical conventions of the American South in the ’60s to craft sad, swingy ballads for people twice their age. Both have won many Grammys, and an Oscar each for singing a Bond theme. When Adele is on an album cycle, Smith, whose second album, “The Thrill of It All,” was released Friday, lays low, and vice versa. No one remembers seeing them in the same place at the same time.
But Adele is one of the only subjects that can be agreed upon in 2017, a Teflon-wrapped unicorn who can put across some very tepid pop songs through the sheer force of her personality, something Smith is unable to do. She can get away with anything; Smith has made a side career out of stepping in it.
An uneasy fame
Ever since his breakout feature turn on Disclosure’s 2012 hit “Latch,” Sam Smith and fame have uncomfortably coexisted. He sold more than 12 million copies of “In the Lonely Hour,” his 2014 debut. He came out as gay around the time of its release and took extreme care to avoid alienating mainstream fans with overt references to a male love interest, even scrubbing the gender pronouns from a cover of Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know.”
He has in turn suffered the affections of a fickle Internet, been criticized for things other people would get away with, for incorrectly proclaiming himself the first openly gay person to win an Academy Award (for his Bond theme, “Writing’s on the Wall”), for saying he didn’t like Tinder, for gaining weight, for losing it.
Nevertheless, he persisted. “The Thrill of It All,” like its predecessor, is a mournful retro soul album that relies on Smith’s otherworldly voice to carry the load. Almost every song is sad, but that voice was built for sadness. Heartbreak is where Sam Smith lives. He’s in love not with love itself, but with its endless opportunities for self-abasement and misery. He is love’s most ardent seeker, its most bereft mourner. He will bludgeon you with it (“Burning,” with its beautifully over the top gospel choir), suffocate you with its earnestness (“Midnight Train,” with its Radiohead circa “Creep” guitars).
No house built on such a sublime foundation, buttressed by the horns and gospel choirs of a hundred classic midcentury R&B albums, should be this empty inside. But “The Thrill of It All” is so much of a piece, such a beautiful but monotonous sadgasm, you might not be able to resist building a better Sam Smith album in your head, to wonder what would have happened if he had had more contemporary reference points.
Smith works mostly with his longtime collaborator Jimmy Napes, and a handful of songwriting and production vets such as Stargate and Timbaland (the latter on the raise-the-rafters, gospel-inspired ballad “Pray”), and, for better or ill, seems mostly unmoved by their influence.
But what if he had made a buzzy ’80s pop album, like Taylor Swift without the score settling, or returned to the languorous electro-pop of his Disclosure period? Even some of pop music’s more unhappily ubiquitous characters start to seem like good ideas: Jack Antonoff probably couldn’t have made the dirge-y piano ballad “Too Good at Goodbyes” any worse. Is Ed Sheeran busy?
It’s only on the slow-burning ballad “HIM” that the album delivers on the promise implicit in Smith’s voice. Written from the point of view of a young man in Mississippi defending his love for another man to his father, and to his Father (“Don’t you try and tell me that God doesn’t care for us/It is him I love”), it’s a moving and a novel exploration of the intersection of religion and LGBTQ issues.
It’s a promising indication that Smith is coming into his own, is more than the male version of Adele, with worse producers and social skills. He’s one of the only contemporary pop artists in 2017 who hasn’t abdicated their responsibility to tell the truth about the state of the world. That “The Thrill of It All,” with its tentative but moving use of male pronouns, its quietly defiant songs about faithless boyfriends, its judicious use of the word “he” even exists inside the pop mainstream is a small miracle, even if, for now, at least, its miracles end there.