The Thrill Of It All (Capitol)
THREE years after his debut, Sam Smith returns with a radically new look and a number of guest producers/writers, including Timbaland and Stargate, who join long-term collaborator Jimmy Napes. So, you’d expect to hear some meaningful difference on the new album, but it seems Smith knows his place — and that place is in the hearts (and wallets) of everybody satisfied by ersatz, paint-by-numbers emotion.
He seems like a decent bloke; no small thing, considering he is the biggest soul star of his generation. And even to the untutored ear, it’s obvious the 25-year-old is a fearsome ninja of vocal technique. Which makes the ‘thrill’ in that title doubly baffling, because it doesn’t relate to anything in this mannered and self-consciously ‘moving’ soul-blues set, where every string swoon, vocal quiver and, most tiresome of all, the heaving tic so relentless the only thing it makes you feel is seasick, is a cue shouting at you to FEEL.
Clichés are packed tighter than commuters on a peak-hour train, but digressions are even less convincing: Say It First tries on some of The xx’s chilly atmospherics for size before deciding the fit’s not great; Midnight Train provides a real WTF moment, when you realise that it half-inches Radiohead’s Creep. Smith no doubt wrote Pray in good faith after his visit to Mosul, but its use of gospel is crushingly predictable, given the subject matter.
Emotions are notoriously messy, but Smith’s controlled material reflects none of that. If The Thrill Of It All were any more constipated, it would come with laxative coupons.