Sam Smith was not an obvious pop star in the making when he put out his debut album early in 2014. He was a shy and romantically inexperienced 21-year-old, who had at that point never been in a serious relationship. When I met him on the eve of the
record’s release, he was still sharing a house with friends in St John’s Wood London and seemed completely fazed by all the attention coming his way.
He was clearly braced for big upheavals – but nonetheless cannot have had an inkling of just how utterly his circumstances were to change.
Millions of record sales later, The Thrill Of It All is Smith’s grandiose comedown LP – a rumination on the hollowness of fame and how it cannot salve the travails of everyday life.
Smith was early in his career hailed /dismissed as the male Adele and the comparison feels especially apt here. His bruised voice is a wonderful instrument, capable of transmitting pain and heartache with uncommon tenderness and ferocity. However, he has a weakness for treacly melodrama – not helped, on the new LP, by a kitchen sink production job that relies heavily on overwrought gospel choirs.
It’s a shame the record is so relentlessly commercial, as it takes the edge off what might otherwise have been hard-punching songs. ‘Him’ narrates the spiritual torment of a American Deep South Christian struggling to reconcile his religion with his sexual orientation – yet this keening subject matter is offset by mannered guitars and vocals that make it sound like a Marks and Spencer Christmas ad. The same tension is apparent on ‘Pray’, where Smith reflects on a charity visit to Iraq as manicured beats whirr in the background.
Ultimately, The Thrill of It All can not surmount the irony that dwells at the heart of the project. This is a lament about the price of fame that goes to unseemly lengths to pander to Smith’s vast mainstream fan base. The singer may be ambivalent about his A-list status but does everything in his power to ensure he retains it.