Ruven Afanador
Eric Renner Brown
November 02, 2017 AT 12:58 PM EDT

We gave it a B

In 2012, a young British crooner broke out with a song called “Latch.” A collaboration with electro duo Disclosure, the track demonstrated what made Sam Smith such an exciting talent — here was a singer who could effortlessly infuse a Prince-worthy falsetto with emotional heft — and paved the way for a string of top 10 hits, four Grammys, and an Oscar (for his 2015 James Bond theme). The title of Smith’s polished second album, The Thrill of It All, seemingly nods to his rapid rise, but the unadventurous material doesn’t live up to its name — or to the high bar he’s set for himself.

On paper, the LP at least looks like a leap forward for the 25-year-old. Jimmy Napes, who wrote and produced several tracks on Smith’s 2014 debut, In the Lonely Hour, returns here, joined by some new marquee names, including Malay (Frank Ocean) and Emile Haynie (Lana Del Rey). When Smith takes a small step outside his comfort zone, like on the brassy exultation “Baby, You Make Me Crazy,” it pays huge dividends. Yet his collaborators’ influence is often disappointingly muted: “Pray,” produced by Timbaland, doesn’t need to be Smith’s “SexyBack,” but it could stand to be more than a typical Smith ballad with some extra drum machines. The Stargate-assisted “Too Good at Goodbyes” also plays it safe, hewing much closer to “Stay With Me” than any of the anthemic work the hitmakers have done with Rihanna and Beyoncé.

All that would be forgivable were Smith’s lyrics stronger. Like Adele — another British vocal powerhouse with a classicist edge, to whom he’s often compared — Smith has pipes that are, on their own, almost worth the price of admission. But while he glides across Malay’s hazy R&B on “Say It First” and “Midnight Train,” he lacks Ocean’s poetic precision. Turning heartache into Top 40 magic is Smith’s strength — he famously thanked an ex for his success during a Grammys speech — but only a few moments here truly resonate emotionally.

One of those is the staggering standout “HIM.” Aided by a choir, the song builds from stark piano balladry to rafter-shaking gospel. The sound’s traditional, but Smith’s subject matter isn’t: The cut finds him struggling to reconcile his love for a man with his Christian faith. “HIM” blends poignant performance with powerful message and, in doing so, does what the other tracks don’t — it genuinely thrills.

Key Tracks
“HIM”: An astounding gospel-tinged exploration of faith and sexuality
“Baby, You Make Me Crazy”: A bold and buoyant team-up with the Dap-Kings Horns
“No Peace”: A cathartic duet with Ed Sheeran-approved singer Yebba

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