Whatever the perks of being a wallflower, they generally don't tend to apply to pop stardom — one of the few occupations with "international show pony" essentially written into the job description. And yet somehow, Sam Smith still landed at the center of it all: a rare introvert in a sea of happy hedonists, spinning lonely-hearts woe into gold with silken-voiced anthems like "Stay With Me" and "Too Good at Goodbyes."
On "Young," the airy a cappella lullaby that opens Love Goes, the 28-year-old Londoner wastes no time making a wistful plea to change all that: "I wanna be wild and young/And not be afraid to lose/Cry on my own, me and my bottle.... Can't you see that all I wanna do is/Get a little wild, get a little high/Kiss a hundred boys and not feel like I'm tied to them?"
The skittering disco of "Diamonds," the propulsive lead single that follows, seems determined to keep that promise, casting off a mercenary lover only in it for the glitter of reflected fame. (In the music video, Smith — who has been almost brutally honest in the past about struggles with identity and body image, and now goes by gender-neutral pronouns — does seem liberated, twirling and tumbling bare-chested in a rainstorm like a lightly stubbled Twyla Tharp.)
Still, it's the prettily composed ballads — wounded, swooning, steeped in regret — that tend to lead. "For the Lover That I Lost" lays a dozen roses, and nearly as many mournful piano chords, at the feet of a former paramour. "Breaking Hearts" offers sweet R&B finger snaps and summer-haze memories to heal the hurt; the string-laden relationship postmortem "Forgive Myself" tries but mostly fails to follow its own hopeful aim.
Even at its most synth-driven and strobe-lit — as on the feathery, bittersweet salutation to an ex "Another One"; the throbbing dance-floor directive "Dance ('Till You Love Someone Else)"; and the pensive title track, whose falsettoed farewells dissolve in a joyful cacophony of marching-band horns — the record remains rooted in a sort of open-vein vulnerability; the bruised, tender manifesto of a Kid Who Cares Too Much.
"Put your hands in the air if you sometimes ever get sad like me/Put your fingers on your chest and your body and pray 'Let it be,' " the gently self-mocking "So Serious" begins; pop music's most tear-stained party DJ, putting out a siren call to all the other shy bystanders, indoor cats, and unbowed romantics of the world.
That Smith — winner of multiple Grammys, belter of slinky Bond themes, heedless dancer in the rain — still gladly lays claim to that clique could feel like a coy pose, a false humility to try on and discard. Instead, the singer wears it like a badge of honor, and lets Love go where it will; every rejection and happily-never-after just one more reason to take the pain, pour it all into a song, and start again. Grade: B+