Count­ing the Teardrops As Sam Smith Fig­ures Out Life

Mu­sic for ‘hav­ing sex with your sad­ness,’ but with an out­ward gaze.

Paper Boy - - Life / Style - By TAFFY BRODESSER-AKNER

WEST HOL­LY­WOOD, Cal­i­for­nia — This is an abridged in­ven­tory of the times that sweet, sad Sam Smith cried over the course of two hours on a couch here at the Chateau Mar­mont ho­tel one re­cent morn­ing: He cried when he talked about the house he grew up in and when he rem­i­nisced about a crush who turned on him. He cried when he talked about writ­ing “Pray,” a song from his new al­bum, “The Thrill of It All.” He cried when he talked about the chil­dren he met in Mo­sul, Iraq, on a re­cent hu­man­i­tar­ian mis­sion.

He’s fine with his cry­ing; what choice does he have? His fa­ther used to cry at a sun­set. He en­cour­aged his son to be as emo­tional.

It’s been more than three years since his first stu­dio al­bum, “In the Lonely Hour” was re­leased, and when he came out as gay. It’s been that long since his lovely, mil­lion-faceted voice called out to the bereft. It’s been al­most that long since he be­came a real, live pop star: a four-time Grammy win­ner and an Os­car win­ner.

He’s now try­ing to bare his soul. But a 25-year- old soul can be a volatile thing. He doesn’t al­ways know how to ar­tic­u­late what he thinks.

If “In the Lonely Hour” was the my­opic look into the heart of a boy help­lessly in love, then the new al­bum, “The Thrill of It All,” is about a man who turns his gaze out­ward. “Mid­night Train” is a sad song about end­ing a re­la­tion­ship that was in­spired by friends, and “Palace” is a sad song about whether love is worth it if it ends. Some of the tracks are about Mr. Smith him­self, in­clud­ing “Burn­ing,” a sad song about pin­ing for a man who has left.

The old-timey soul is still there. Mr. Smith de­cided long ago that his voice was the in­stru­ment: whis­pered bari­tones, sur­prise ul­tra-high falsetto, even a haunt­ing, beau­ti­ful croak of long­ing. It is still prime mu­sic for “hav­ing sex with your sad­ness,” as Mr. Smith said.

But he can now re­count ac­tual re­la­tion­ships in his songs. He’s still never been in the kind of mag­i­cal “Note­book” love he longs for, he said, but about a year ago, he had a five-month re­la­tion­ship that took three breakups be­fore the breakup took. It is the sub­ject of “Too Good at Good­byes,” the first sin­gle off the new al­bum. He has been dat­ing the ac­tor Brandon Flynn, from Net­flix’s “13 Rea­sons Why,” see­ing where that goes.

Af­ter a re­cent show, the news me­dia picked up on a state­ment he made about feel­ing as much like a woman as a man, and so­cial me­dia got on him for be­ing too ca­sual about gen­der flu­id­ity when he iden­ti­fies as a gay man. One day he will get it right, he said, his eyes shiny with big, sad Sam Smith tears. He added, “I’m still try­ing to fig­ure [ex­ple­tive] out, and I’d like to be treated like a hu­man.”

RYAN PFLUGER FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES Sam Smith’s new al­bum, ‘‘The Thrill of It All,’’ is a much-an­tic­i­pated fol­low-up to his 2014 de­but,‘‘in The Lonely Hour.’’

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