Rare is the pop star who, in the midst of a torturous break-up, doesn’t quietly think to themselves: “Well, at least that’s the next album sorted.” Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear, Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, Adele’s 25 and Ariana Grande’s Thank U, Next all artfully picked over the entrails of a broken relationship, and made a tidy sum in the process. Not that writing about a break-up need be a cynical endeavour, or indeed a chance to get even (though if you’re after the sound of sweet revenge, try Pale Green Ghosts by John Grant, who at one stage compares his ex-partner to the chemical Agent Orange).
Sam Smith’s third album, which catalogues the aftershocks of their split with the 13 Reasons Why actor Brandon Flynn (in 2019, Smith came out as non-binary and now uses the pronouns they/them), is among the more reasonable break-up albums you’re likely to hear. You’d expect nothing less from a famously shy singer who, along with their Grammys, Brits, Oscars and Golden Globes, is surely a shoo-in for the award for Nicest Person in Pop. In songwriting terms, though, kindness and decency only get you so far. For all Love Goes’ heart-on-sleeve melancholy, you long for it to land a few punches.
“Diamonds” chides a lover’s interest in their money, though ultimately Smith decides to shoulder the blame – “I should never trust so easily”. The sugary, strings-smothered “For The Lover That I Lost” finds them basking in the memories of their ex despite the fact that “you’re the last thing that I need”. In “Breaking Hearts”, Smith paints a poignant picture of the sleeplessness and depression that can go hand in hand with heartbreak.
There are broader themes about learning to love yourself and the impulse to let loose and behave badly. In the opener, “Young”, Smith sings, with the utmost gentleness, about wanting to “get a little wild, get a little high … I want to fight, and fall off the tables” – all understandable sentiments, even if it’s a stretch to imagine Smith as the next Pete Doherty, blithely clutching a 12-pack of Tennent’s and a crack pipe.
Musically, there are fitful moves away from the slick soul-pop with which they are most closely identified – “Dance (‘Til You Love Someone Else)” is a pleasingly upbeat Robyn-esque club track, while the bold, whooshing bass in the bonus track “How Do You Sleep?”, in which Smith is poleaxed by their lover’s lack of shame, yields a similarly energising slap around the chops. But, for the most part, the mood here is pensive, the ballads plentiful and the pace glacial, with little evidence of the wild abandon that the singer supposedly longs for.
It’s to Smith’s credit, but also their undoing, that they are just too damned nice.
DOWNLOAD ALBUM: Sam Smith – Love Goes