Review

Sam Smith's falsetto carries a phantom weight on 'The Thrill of It All'

Who is Sam Smith kidding?

“Every time you hurt me, the less that I cry,” he sings, vowing to guard his fragile heart, in “Too Good at Goodbyes,” the gospel-inspired opener from his new studio album, “The Thrill of It All.”

But if there’s anything this young British soul star has made clear since he emerged five years ago, it’s that he’ll never, ever run out of tears.

True to Smith’s ultra-sensitive brand, the drama runs as deep on “The Thrill of It All,” due Friday, as it did on Smith’s smash 2014 debut, “In the Lonely Hour,” which sold millions of copies, spawned three top-10 singles and earned the singer an armload of Grammy Awards, including one for best new artist.

In his new tunes Smith is still lamenting broken relationships and dreaming about the idealized love he hopes one day to find; “One Last Song” again addresses the man Smith has said was the subject of his “In the Lonely Hour.”

“You made me sad till I loved the shade of blue,” he tells the guy, assuring him that after this Smith is done. (We’ll see.)

For all its familiar emotion, though, “The Thrill of It All” demonstrates Smith’s impressive growth as a vocalist and a songwriter. His singing has gotten deeper and richer, as he shows off in “Burning,” which he starts without accompaniment, and especially “Him,” where you can hear not just romance but sex in the music.

Now, when Smith brandishes his signature falsetto, as he does in “Too Good at Goodbyes,” it carries a kind of phantom weight — the sense that something (or someone) has driven him up to those sky-high notes.

He’s become a more interesting curator of sounds, too. Working with his old studio partner Jimmy Napes as well as new collaborators such as Timbaland and Malay, Smith broadens the narrow palette he used on “In the Lonely Hour” to pull in vivid church choirs and heavy R&B grooves; “No Peace” even cribs the spacey guitar tone the Chainsmokers cribbed from the xx. (English guitar music echoes again in “Midnight Train,” which strongly recalls Radiohead’s “Creep,” of all things.)

In “Baby, You Make Me Crazy,” the singer describes another crying jag, this one in response to being hung up on by a lover — a classic Sam Smith scenario. But the song isn’t a slow-moving piano ballad; it’s a swinging Southern-soul jam with punchy horns by Brooklyn’s Dap-Kings.

Smith matches these vivid arrangements with lyrics that feel more pointed and specific than the words on his debut, which at the time he said he was aiming to keep more universal.

Some observers interpreted “universal” as code for “not gay.” And Smith’s perception as an imperfect LGBTQ icon only increased after last year’s Academy Awards, where the singer — whose James Bond theme “Writing’s on the Wall” was named best original song — attracted criticism for suggesting incorrectly that he was the first openly gay man to win an Oscar.

Yet the centerpiece of “The Thrill of It All” is “Him,” another gospel-steeped number in which Smith walks the streets of Mississippi (!) while holding his man’s hand.

“I feel you staring when he is with me,” he sings, his voice surging with intensity, “How can I make you understand?”

As always with Smith, the depiction verges on melodrama. But you have to admire his commitment to the image.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Sam Smith

”The Thrill of It All”

Capitol Records

Release date: Nov. 3

mikael.wood@latimes.com

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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