There’s a moment on Sam Smith’s “Him” when he croons, “I walk the streets of Mississippi/I hold my lover by the hand/I feel you staring when he is with me.” This stands out as a particularly visceral and poignant moment in the first track written for his latest album, The Thrill of it All (★★★). “Him” is a song that wrestles with faith and gay identity as it plays with the idea of God the father figure. It’s refreshingly confident and unblinking from a top-selling artist who has skirted around his sexuality in the past. It’s also, unfortunately, an outlier in an album that otherwise sticks to a pallet of familiar tropes and structures.
Smith’s voice is strong and packed with enough emotion to provide a counterweight to the relative blandness of the material. Those heartrending vocals accompanied by a piano and a choral section are made for commercial success — it’s not for nothing that “Too Good at Goodbyes” topped the charts for weeks after its release. Formulaic as it is, it’s a formula for a reason, and it’s easy enough to enjoy for two or even three songs. Stretched over an entire album, however, the approach shows its limitations quickly. Any of the songs would be fine on their own, but only a couple ever manage to stand out from the rest. If you weren’t paying attention, you might wonder for a second if you had been listening to the same song stuck on a loop.
There’s no reason to doubt that Smith is being genuine here, but something about the way the album is put together waters down the pathos in his voice. His feelings may be deep, but aside from the male pronouns, wordplay, and queer referents on the standout track “Him,” Smith never manages to get very far in conveying thoughts and feelings beyond the broad, sweeping and universal.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with sticking to a format that works, and it’s especially hard to fault Smith for hewing to an approach that has brought so much commercial success. What makes his latest work a little disappointing is the feeling of wasted potential. He could very likely do so much more, even if he stuck within the piano ballad-driven confines he seems to have imposed on himself. The feelings may all be there and they may indeed be deeply felt and genuine, but going to pains to find a common denominator flattens them into something bloodless and without the teeth it might have had.
Shamir Bailey’s third album carries a remarkably apt title. Revelations (★★★★) picks up from Hope, the surprise sophomore album recorded over a weekend on a 4-track that marked an abrupt shift into lo-fi from the polished, disco-throwback pop of his debut Rachet. six months later, his latest release shines up the rougher edges while preserving the DIY rawness that works just as well on this album.
The commitment to lo-fi and the underriding idea of reinvention are apparent from the album’s beginning. “Games” opens with a plonking keyboard riff more evocative of a novice’s demo than an artist who has experienced life as an overnight pop success. As Shamir’s unmistakable vocals come in to carry on an imagined conversation with a record label exec who has just let him go, it’s clear that we’re still dealing with an impressive talent. Throughout the album, he jumps frantically from one style to another, and we see many hints of the punk and country he grew up listening to.
Vocals and instrumentals aside, Revelation is also held up by some raw and memorable songwriting. While Shamir’s tone certainly comes across as more honest and serious in his lyrics, his stream of consciousness on these tracks is as irreverent and fun as it is blunt and revealing. “We talk with vocal fry/We watch our futures die,” goes the opener to “90s Kids,” a track that is one long snarky rejoinder to the innumerable hot takes on millennials. On the album’s closer, he flippantly tosses off the line, “Straight boys ruin my life,” a brief, elegantly simple, and completely relatable confession. “Blooming” gives us the best summation of his mission statement: “I’m too strong to just lay down and die.” A little over-the-top, sure, but it’s difficult not to believe him.
Not everything on Revelations works, and Shamir does not always play to what seem like obvious strengths, but these are more growing pains than they are fundamental flaws in the album. Hope proved his versatility and depth by totally reinventing his sound and image, and Revelations is a sign that Shamir has the creativity, energy and talent to devote to whatever might come next.
Revelations and The Thrill of It All are available to buy from Amazon and iTunes, and are on most streaming services.
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