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Album Review

"I haven't been very lucky in my romantic life, it's true," Sam Smith recently told Billboard magazine. "I've found it all pretty difficult, and I guess in my songs it all just comes spilling out."

Boy, does it.

Smith's vulnerable, plaintive, emotionally taut tenor narrates stories of love gone wrong on song after song. So much so that one can't help but wonder if this influential, openly gay singer—whom Billboard described as "the preeminent British male soul star of his generation"—shouldn't have dubbed his sophmore album The Despair of It All instead of The Thrill of It All. Thrills, of any kind, are few and far between here. But disappointment and disillusionment lurk on nearly every track.

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Pro-social Content

From start to finish, Sam Smith's songs display a startling, disarming level of vulnerability as he sings about his deep desire to know and to be known. He's honest about how rejection and disappointment cause him to inch toward being self-protective, something we see in "Too Good at Goodbyes," especially: "I'm just protecting my innocence/I'm just protecting my soul." Each of these themes in Smith's music feel universal, in that all of us long to be loved for who we are.

"Scars" is one of the few songs on the album that doesn't deal with romantic relationships. Instead, it offers an honest, poignant tribute to Smith's divorced parents. He acknowledges how hard their parting was on the family ("It's been a long five years, I've cried a thousand tears and here/We are after the war"). But he also offers affirmation to both of his parents, too: "Dear mother, how you've come so far/Your love has fixed all of our broken hearts." And, "This is for my father, from the older brother of your children/ … Yeah, you've been so good to us and showed us how to live and/Taught us to be free."

"Pray" acknowledges that Smith struggles with faith ("I block out the news, turn my back on religion/ … I never have believed in You") but says that he's going to keep praying to God anyway despite his doubts ("And I'm gonna pray"). He humbly acknowledges his shortcomings as well: "I'm down on my knees, I'm begging You please/I'm broken, alone and afraid/I'm not a saint, more of a sinner." And he genuinely seems to long for a relationship with God ("Won't You call me? Can we have a one on one, please?") (That longing is also evident in problematic track "HIM" which I'll deal with below.)

In our digitally addicted age, "One Day at a Time" counsels unplugging and just being present. "Let's turn off our phones/ … So let's sit by and English river." The song also suggests there's always time for a redemptive change in life: "In a world of reinventions/It's never too late."

Objectionable Content

"HIM" is essentially a prayer to God in which Sam Smith tries to reconcile what he's apparently been taught about homosexuality in church with his own desire for a same-sex relationship. "Holy Father/We need to talk/I have a secret/that I can't keep." The secret soon becomes clear: "Say I shouldn't be here, but I can't give up his touch/It is him I love." That's quickly followed by a defensive lyric aimed at anyone who suggests his same-sex attraction isn't OK in God's eyes: "Don't you try and tell me that God doesn't care for us/It is him that I love." The song concludes with a challenge of sorts: "Holy Father/Judge my sins/I'm not afraid of what they will bring."

A couple of songs subtly allude to the physical relationships Smith had with former partners. In "No Peace," we hear: "I see you in the morning/Feel your fingers in my hair/Sometimes I pretend you're there/ … You held my heart in your fingertips/ … I used to find comfort in your arms/Caught up in the wonder of your charms." In "Midnight Train," we hear, "I'll miss your touch/And the secrets with both know." Meanwhile, on "The Thrill of It All," we hear, "I guess I got lost in your heartbeat/In the thrill of it all."

"Nothing Left for You" descends into the depths of emotional torment after a breakup, with Smith confessing, "I'll never love again/ … 'Cause I gave/My heart/To a g--d--n fool/I gave him everything." (That profanity is repeated six times here, and we hear it three times in the title track as well.)

Several songs include references to smoking and drinking, sometimes as a misguided attempt to deal with emotional pain. On "Burning," for instance, Smith sings, "Yeah, I've been burning up since you left/I've been smoking, oh/More than 20 a day." Later he adds, "Wish we could just smoke again." And "One Day at a Time" suggests, "Can we light a cigarette/And talk about days gone by?/ … Let's grab a bottle and take it one day at a time."

Summary Advisory

Sam Smith's broad appeal lies in his truly remarkable voice, and how he uses it to unpack tales of emotional devastation that practically make you want to get on a plane to England just to give the guy a hug and cheer him up. He doesn't seem like a global music superstar so much as your kid brother or best friend who's going through a really hard time. Perpetually, it seems.

But that very everyman relatability creates a conundrum for listeners whose faith makes it impossible to embrace this likable guy's sexual identity. On one level, the songs Smith sings are standard-issue love stories about heartbreak and unrequited love—songs that, to their credit, rarely get too explicit. (Though some profanities do creep in.) On another level, though, knowing that he's singing about same-sex attraction changes the impact his songs might have. Smith's aching tales of heartbreak—and his attempt to square his sexual identity with his fragile faith—powerfully reinforce secular culture's insistence that homosexual relationships are no different than heterosexual ones.

Obviously, many in the mainstream have celebrated Smith precisely because of this aspect of his music and message, with many hailing him as a brave pioneer. Those who hold to a biblical view of sexuality, however, may appreciate his admittedly amazing voice even as we voice our own concerns about the unbiblical message it delivers so appealingly.

Plot Summary

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Debuted at No. 1.

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November 3, 2017

On Video

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Adam R. Holz

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