He says goodbye, but we say hello. Sam Smith is back with “Too Good at Goodbyes,” the first single off his forthcoming sophomore album, and he had us at sayonara. There’s a sort of humblebrag embedded in the title that Smith more than prepared to make good on with this, his first outing since that two-year-old James Bond theme. He really is almost too adroit at pulling off a ridiculously delicate ballad in a world of bangers.
The brag part comes in as Smith paints himself as the world’s greatest relationship saboteur. He’s hard-ass and softie all at once — somebody who’s going to preemptively cause his partner some hurt, right at the point he remembers he’s likely to get his heart broken. “I’m never gonna get too close to you, even though I mean the most to you,” he sings, “in case you go and leave me in the dirt.” In other words: You can’t fire him, because he quit.
Once again, Smith is plumbing the depths of melancholia with a flawless, effortlessly flexible tenor that seems to be on loan to the underworld from somewhere in the heavens. There’s not a lot in the track that he, carry-over collaborator Jimmy Napes, and songwriter-producer duo Stargate have come up with to detract from that instrument. For the first minute of the song, Smith’s voice is joined only by the sparsest and most basic piano chords, along with some finger-snapping. Eventually a light beat kicks in, then a gospel choir, as if to almost mock Smith’s romantic lamentation by raising it to the level of spiritual battle. Those extra production elements drop out as easily as they drop in, though, until it’s finally just piano and fingers again, then a sobby, a cappella closing line.
Maybe you’d also like a majestic bridge that never arrives; that may be the missing element that leaves “Goodbyes” shy of being a pop classic. But Smith’s magical, tragical voice is its own kind of classicism, melting you with its vulnerability even as he tries some swagger on for size as part of his exit strategy. If his being so okay about breaking up doesn’t seem sufficiently sad for you, rest assured that his coming album is full of further heartache. Like his nearest counterpart, Adele, Smith has every intention of forever wooing us with beautiful woe. Luckily for all, he’s good at it.