Sam Smith’s breakout moment as a deep house don on Disclosure’s “Latch,” arguably the sexiest club banger of 2012, was a feint. Sure, dude could sing. But given the digital-chipmunk high notes and other effects, the jam gave little indication of his full power. His debut LP, In the Lonely Hour, clarified matters, racking up ridiculous stream and sales numbers, plus four Grammys. Now, doubling down on his magnificent, gender-nonconforming voice while pushing his songcraft forward, Smith’s second LP knights one of the mightiest, most expressive vocalists of his generation.
Where Lonely Hour led with beats, Thrill of It All opens on lonely piano chords and Smith’s whispering high tenor, which sweeps up to falsetto on the pre-chorus, soon echoed by a choir and handclaps. The song, “Too Good at Goodbyes,” has gotten over 120 million YouTube plays since its release as a single, and establishes the ruling formula for album, one which Smith laid out on his biggest hit “Stay With Me” – an aching lover pleading with a paramour against slow-building gospel-pop rapture. He mixes up. “One Last Song” adds choral muscle and Memphis brass to a doo-wop strut that echoes Amy Winehouse, as does “Baby You Make Me Crazy” (Smith’s live version of the late singer’s “Tears Dry on Their Own” is worth searching for). On the tortured “Burning,” which begins with a haunting a capella, Smith confesses despondency, flying up and down his vocal range, each switchback escalating the drama until yet another churchy choir raises the roof. “No Peace” is a showpiece duet with up-and-comer Yebba, a Harlem-based singer via West Memphis, Arkansas, whose full breakout moment must be close at hand.
But the drama here peaks with the breathtaking “Him.” Until now, Smith has largely kept his identity as a gay man out of his songwriting. Here, he addresses a “Holy Father,” appearing to conflate spiritual and biological patriarchs, confessing he’s “not the boy that/You thought you wanted,” and declaring “it is him I love,” bottoming out his register on the final word. It’s intense, and by the time Smith describes walking hand in hand with his lover through the streets of Mississippi – a state whose famous intolerance was immortalized by kindred torch singer Nina Simone in her 1964 single “Mississippi Goddam” – it’s clear Smith has forged a civil rights anthem no less visceral and no less committed.
“Him” elevates a set of brilliantly-sung
songs into a potent concept album that universalizes heartbreak from a
distinctly LGBTQ point of view. Yes, the magic beats of “Latch” are
missed. But here’s hoping for a house remix of “Him” that will raise
the roof in clubs gay and straight for years to come.