Breaking up is one of the things pop music does particularly well, turning the pain of failed romance into ballads of succour and anthems of defiance.
Big beats and shiny new genres come and go, but heartbreak is perennial. Sam Smith’s multi-million selling 2014 debut, In A Lonely Hour, was less about losing love than never having found it.
Fame has clearly changed the game. Looking trim on the sleeve of his second album, Smith – formerly a shy, awkward outsider singing soulful songs about solitude – here goes for the romantic jugular.
The Thrill of It All doesn’t just wallow in love’s misery, it practically drowns in the stuff. Its 10 songs are almost unrelentingly miserable, self-absorbed and self-pitying, verging on the lachrymose and sentimental (as lovers in the midst of a break-up often are).
There is no emphasis on originality. Simple chord sequences draw on overly familiar vintage soul, gospel and R’n’B tropes. The instrumentation is understated piano and strings blended with just the occasional hint of contemporary hip-hop effects.
At times, Smith’s lyrics display a slightly clunking prosaicness. There’s not much poetry in lines such as “real love is never a waste of time” or “there’s no insurance to pay for the damage”. Yet it all hits home, because Smith makes every note sound like a matter of life and death.
That Smith is singing about the failure of the first great romance of his life lends a raw edge to proceedings. Him is the album’s centrepiece, a gospel drama addressed to a judgmental “holy father”, insisting on Smith’s right to love whom he chooses. It is a kind of hymn to Him, and as the choir powers up it gains a righteous glory.
The quality of dynamic range is unusual in modern pop, shifting seamlessly back and forth between quiet and loud, intimate and full blast. It is as if Smith’s producers have given themselves room to manoeuvre by maintaining the focus on the singer’s extraordinary vocals.
Smith’s emotive singing style is not to everyone’s taste. Some critics are irritated by a quality of breathily soft yet high-strung tremulousness, like an adenoidal choir boy in a constant state of distress.
Yet there is something supernatural about Smith’s vast range and sensuous flow. He moves between rich low and spooky high notes with fluid ease and no loss of tone. He does not showboat or grandstand, which is unusual for someone of his technical virtuosity. He is always reaching for the most raw and direct exposition of a song.
The Thrill of It All is stripped back to bare emotional bones, shot through with vulnerability and sensitivity, not so much wearing its heart on its sleeve as proffering an open vein.