Sam Smith’s Songwriting Soars to New Heights on ‘The Thrill of it All’

At the forefront of today’s slew of r&b crooners, there exists a tendency to lay everything on a little too thick. Even the most soulful and fiery vocalists are guilty of following this ill-fated trend: slapping on layers upon layers of production and bulky instrumentation until their own vocals, once so distinct and pronounced, start treading water in a sea of bells and whistles. One of the most gifted vocalists to smash his way into the mainstream in the last five years, Sam Smith takes the opposite route on his sophomore effort, “The Thrill of it All,” letting his otherworldly voice and lush lyrics take full command of the album’s direction while minimalist production takes a backseat.

The smartest thing Sam Smith ever did was recognize his own abilities. He burst onto the scene thanks to an unforgettable turn on Disclosure’s “Latch,” and that very vocal performance kicked off what would be an incredible rise for the now 25-year-old. A key to “Latch” and many of Smith’s most resonant hits since then has been the singer’s ability to trim the fat and let the lyrics speak for themselves. It worked out quite wonderfully on “In the Lonely Hour,” and the formula proves true on the lyricist’s compact second effort.

“The Thrill of it All” even feels minimalist at its surface, clocking in at 35 minutes and 10 tracks of Smith’s emotional and versatile stylings. “You must think I’m stupid,” Smith tacitly accuses on opening cut “Too Good at Goodbyes.” That memorable opening line arrives over the perfect amount of understated piano before kicking into just the right amount of choir-backed snaps to give the track an endearing catchiness. There’s nothing overpowering about the album’s first single, and that’s what makes it so powerful — paradoxical, perhaps, but Smith just makes it work. That same muted sense of power takes root in “Say it First,” a pulsing track that slowly unwinds into a plea for romantic reassurance where Smith begs “Come on darling/if you love me/say it first.” Not all of the album’s tracks are rooted in sparse instrumentation, though, with “One Last Song” tapping horns to give the cut a jaunty kick worthy of the dance floor, or “Baby You Make Me Crazy” ringing with a top 40 kind of confidence.

In terms of the sonics of “The Thrill of it All,” nothing sounds all that new, but the style that Smith first brought to the dance in 2014 feels deftly refined thanks to probably the best penmanship Smith has churned out to date. There’s something about the heartbreaking “Midnight Train,” a final love letter of sorts Smith leaves his lover before walking out for good, that really resonates in the heart. “I choose me,” he boldly declares, picking through the regret and betrayal surrounding his decision when he wonders, “Am I a monster?/What do your family think of me?/They brought me in/They helped me with everything.” Even the chorus sounds like a haunting train whistle in the distance. But in terms of rousing autobiographical tunes, all the plaudits go to “Him,” where Smith fleshes out his inner-turmoil pitting his Catholic upbringing and homosexuality against one another. “I’m not the boy you thought you wanted,” he sings dejectedly, almost apologetically over a bed of forlorn piano that eventually morphs into a glorious cacophony of voices. “Don’t you try and tell me God doesn’t care for us,” he rebukes in the chorus.

Smith is clearly hesitant to open up his albums to collaborations, preferring instead to tell his own story himself. “No Peace” is one exception on the new album that sees Smith team up with the full-bodied voice of Yebba, a singer so powerful she even moved Ed Sheeran to tears, for a deep cut exploring the treacherous waters of a doomed relationship. Timbaland’s production also appears on final cut “Pray,” giving the soulful lamentation a swanky, hip-hop swing to it. Even when things slow down, they pick back up rather quickly. “The Thrill of it All” sees Smith exercising  that all-important songwriting muscle, and it sounds like he’s been getting more than enough reps in.

The Thrill of it All” is available Nov. 3 on Apple Music.