Following the pioneering observations with COBE in the early 1990s, studies of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) have focused on temperature and polarization anisotropies. CMB spectral distortions - tiny departures of the CMB energy spectrum from that of a perfect blackbody - provide a second, independent probe of fundamental physics, with a reach deep into the primordial Universe. The theoretical foundation of spectral distortions has seen major advances in recent years, which highlight the immense potential of this emerging field. Spectral distortions probe a fundamental property of the Universe - its thermal history - thereby providing additional insight into processes within the cosmological standard model (CSM) as well as new physics beyond. Spectral distortions are an important tool for understanding inflation and the nature of dark matter. They shed new light on the physics of recombination and reionization, both prominent stages in the evolution of our Universe, and furnish critical information on baryonic feedback processes, in addition to probing primordial correlation functions at scales inaccessible to other tracers. In principle the range of signals is vast: many orders of magnitude of discovery space could be explored by detailed observations of the CMB energy spectrum. Several CSM signals are predicted and provide clear experimental targets, some of which are already observable with present-day technology. Confirmation of these signals would extend the reach of the CSM by orders of magnitude in physical scale as the Universe evolves from the initial stages to its present form. The absence of these signals would pose a huge theoretical challenge, immediately pointing to new physics.