Sam Smith – The Thrill Of It All
Sam Smith’s sophomore effort showcases his otherworldly vocal abilities from front to back, but doesn’t back them up with anything else to get excited about. Smith doesn’t change up the formula at all here, sticking to the gospel-tinged breakup slow burners that worked for him on debut album In The Lonely Hour, but on a second full album of tracks tailored to be emotionally affecting, you can predict the twists and turns in Smith’s stories beforehand here. Seriously, a gospel choir coming in to back him up is the big “surprise” on half of these songs. For someone whose hit “Stay With Me” came under a lot more fire than it needed to for sounding somewhat similar to a Tom Petty hit – “Midnight Train” being an ACTUAL blatant ripoff of Radiohead’s “Creep” makes you roll your eyes. There are some strange missteps for otherwise great producers here, as Frank Ocean’s go-to guy Malay delivers the extremely flat “Say It First” and Timbaland, coming out of hiding, sounds extremely dated on closing track “Pray”.
I’m much more drawn to the few upbeat tracks on this project, as it’s an area he hasn’t ventured into nearly as much in his solo material and brings his voice closer to the territory of soul music. “One Last Song” is a classic doo-wop ballad, backed up by R&B piano triplets and a persistent horn section around the best structured chorus here. The prominent drumbeat here gives his voice an actual punch, something for it to rise above triumphantly. While the lyrics are often cliched for Smith’s trademark love ballads here, “HIM” twists Smith’s gospel sensibilities to tell an emotionally affecting story of coming out to a priest, the chilling bass of the choir backing him up as he sings “Don’t you try and tell me that God doesn’t care for us, it is him I love”
The surprise of Smith’s vocal abilities can be enough to save a lot of these sleepier tracks at times – it feels even more passionate than it was on his previous effort, with more cracks and restraint in just the right places. There isn’t anybody in this lane doing the high falsetto blue-eyed soul this well in popular music right now. I just wish he took a few more risks – more often than not, they work out well for him.
Favourite Tracks: One Last Song, Baby You Make Me Crazy, Too Good At Goodbyes, HIM
Least Favourite Track: Say It First
Maroon 5 – Red Pill Blues
It surprised me that Maroon 5’s last album, V, came out in the summer of 2014 – the band is such a constant in the background of our lives with their bland and inoffensive pop music that I honestly thought the album came out last year. Now with their sixth effort, unfortunately titled Red Pill Blues as the band was apparently aware of the darker undertones to the phrase, Adam Levine and his band of, somehow, SIX other guys who used to play instruments but now stand around bored hitting a note or two on mechanical drums and keyboards during live performances, venture even further down this rabbit hole of seemingly attempting to make the most detached pop music possible, devoid of any personality or defining characteristics. Not that I’m going to come out here and say that “What Lovers Do” hasn’t been stuck in my head for the majority of this past month – Maroon 5 have assembled a pretty great team here, and they know how to make a hit – but this goes so far to sound like it was written, produced and performed by robots.
When the music attempts to achieve a bigger, more cinematic quality on tracks like “Lips On You”, Levine’s voice is so set in its ways at this point that the smallest bit of emotion he tries to put back into it just falls flat. Levine is less of a singer and more of an instrument all on its own at this point, a constant sonic texture to blend with the rest of the production. The album boasts talented guest stars in SZA, Julia Michaels and A$AP Rocky, but like Kendrick Lamar’s laughably short verse on “Don’t Wanna Know”, which appears as a bonus track here, their roles are inexplicably brief, and all of their essence is sucked out in the same way – I can’t tell, but there must be some kind of mechanical vocal effect here. You can’t subdue Julia Michaels’ vocal quirks that easily.
I wish I had a lot more room to complain, but I’ll say that “Whiskey” contains the nonsensical lyrics “I was so young ‘til she kissed me, like whiskey”, and the album concludes with an ELEVEN-minute song, 8 minutes of the same instrumental repeating with a few brief saxophone flourishes after 3 minutes of yet another bland pop song, and leave it at that.
Favourite Tracks: What Lovers Do, Wait
Least Favourite Track: Whiskey
Taylor Swift – reputation
The biggest star on the planet’s sixth studio album sees her diving into a theme and embracing the “snake” image that was associated with her in the wake of the mess surrounding Kanye West’s “Famous”, maintaining that she’s above all the drama in an unconvincing way due to the sheer fact she dedicates multiple tracks to it. Regardless, with the assistance of superproducers Max Martin and Jack Antonoff, despite how much it sounds similar to a certain outspoken Chicago rapper, Swift’s ventures into heavy industrial sounds are her most interesting musical turn yet, and the production shimmers across the board. The character Swift here paints is annoying, and the situations she speaks about tedious, but some of the instrumentals and catchy choruses here make it hard to hate, as much you want to. For the most part though, reputation is an inconsistent mixed bag.
The album opens strong, the first five tracks all delivering some of those inescapable choruses Swift is known for, now set to some trap-influenced instrumentals (Future even shows up!) and some grinding, abrasive low synths that give her a perfect soundboard to act villainous over. If you can ignore her trying a little too hard on the lyrics, hearing her snarl over some bombastic synth drops and gunshot noised on “I Did Something Bad” is a captivating dynamic shift for Swift, while “Don’t Blame Me” delivers the most instantly catchy chorus and she scales her persona back on “Delicate”: “My reputation’s never been worse, so you must like me for me”. The crown jewel is “Getaway Car”, an 80s-influenced track that wouldn’t be out of place on Carly Rae Jepsen’s E-MO-TION, featuring a twinkling background and Taylor’s most emotional delivery with some great storytelling.
Swift uses the same, muddy vocal effects on more than one occasion here for dramatic effect, but even though she isn’t particularly known for her vocal abilities, she does have a pleasant kind of sweet and innocent tone that creates an interesting dichotomy with what she’s saying here, and I really would have loved to hear her real voice more – it’s used for the whole duration of “King Of My Heart” and ruins an already weaker chorus. Taylor and her team click for some really great moments here, but the worse end is pretty inexcusable – we know the non-starter that is “Look What You Made Me Do”, but we also have an uninspired pop track that doesn’t fit in with the sound in “Gorgeous”, and some pretty infuriating lyrics on “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”, where she somehow twists her powerful character into playing the victim once again and outright mocks West when she was equally in the wrong. At 15 tracks, some of the excess tracks near the conclusion are thematically similar and could have been easily cut.
Reputation has some of the best and worst musical moments this year had to offer in the same place, but what I can say about Swift is she’s a marketing genius – her place in pop culture history is firmly solidified.
Favourite Tracks: Getaway Car, Don’t Blame Me, I Did Something Bad, Dress
Least Favourite Track: King Of My Heart