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Track Review

British soul singer Sam Smith's delicate falsetto wowed the music world in 2014. And when Grammy votes were tallied in early 2015, Smith walked away with four wins: Best New Artist, Best Pop Vocal Album (In the Lonely Hour), Record of the Year and Song of the Year (both for "Stay With Me").

Now the 25-year-old singer is back with the lead single, "Too Good at Goodbyes," from his forthcoming, still-untitled sophomore effort. Smith may be three years older. But he's no less melancholy. And his trademark aching tenor? Well, it's still aching all over the place in this mournful tune, the story of a man who longs for love but is too badly scarred to make a romantic commitment.

Authentic Agony

Is it possible to embrace someone but push them away at the same time? Sam Smith's response to that paradox is an unmitigated yes: "I'm never gonna let you close to me/Even though you mean the most to me," he admits early on in this emotive piano ballad. He knows how much his partner cares for him ("I mean the most to you"), but the impulse to protect his heart from further injury remains ever present ("So I'm never gonna get too close to you/ … In case you go and leave me in the dirt"). Sort of a preemptive breakup, if you will.

But apparently, these risks and fears aren't completely hypothetical. "Every time you hurt me," Smith sings, "the less that I cry/And every time you leave me, the quicker these tears dry." Those hard moments have pushed Smith in a self-preservationist direction: "I'm just protecting my innocence/I'm just protecting my soul." Ultimately, he believes the outcome of this relationship is preordained: "Baby, we don't stand a chance, it's sad but true."

That admission is followed by the repeated suggestion that Smith has trod the hard ground of heartbreak many times before: "I'm way to good at goodbyes," he confesses sadly. Smith's keening, yearning voice sounds as if it could slip into a grieving sob at any moment. And those strong emotions lace "Too Good at Goodbyes" with a sense of palpable authenticity. By song's end, I believe that Sam Smith has lived through the emotional agony he's singing about here.

Embracing Romantic Diversity

Anyone who's ever been in a similar spot—knowing that a relationship with a cherished romantic partner is nonetheless doomed—will likely relate to this sad song. That's a melancholy sentiment, to be sure. But it's not an inherently problematic one (unless a sad fan puts this song on repeat and indulges in it endlessly, which definitely could lead that listener in an emotionally unhealthy direction).

The song's video fleshes this theme out by adding another layer of content that we must now address: depictions of just about every kind romantic coupling possible. As Smith sings, the camera zooms in on five different couples—some are heterosexual, some are of the same sex—as they linger close and pained expressions likewise linger on their faces.

We see two women, two different male couples, and two different heterosexual couples. (Smith, who's openly gay, can be seen sadly embracing a man whose back remains turned toward the camera each time he's shown.) We see one straight couple kiss. We see the lesbian couple kiss. Two men are shown next to each other in bed.

Thus, the video delivers a message that the song's lyrics themselves never deal with: that all couples—gay or straight—are the same in their experience of heartbreak. Perhaps more importantly, that theme reinforces the unbiblical (but culturally popular) notion that there's no difference at all between any possible combinations of romantic partners.

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Debuted at No. 5.

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September 8, 2017

On Video

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Adam R. Holz

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