Counting the Teardrops As Sam Smith Figures Out Life
Music for ‘having sex with your sadness,’ but with an outward gaze.
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.”