It's rare that a songwriter has altered course as radically and successfully as Robin Proper-Sheppard did when he formed Sophia, after the tragedy-marred demise of his extraordinary first band, The God Machine.
Where The God Machine were fervent disciples of more is more – a constant battle between raging riffs and Proper-Sheppard’s anguished howl – Sophia have taken the exact opposite route, using spare string arrangements, acoustic guitars, whisperingly intimate vocals and almost imperceptible key changes to achieve the same emotional impact. In the aching, shimmering There Are No Goodbyes, they have released their richest, loveliest and saddest record yet.
Like many of the most emotionally affecting records in pop history (such as Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, or Joni Mitchell’s Blue, both of which this sometimes resembles), There Are No Goodbyes finds Proper-Sheppard obsessively picking over the corpse of a recently dead relationship. Unsurprisingly, the result is deeply mournful, both lyrically and musically: the title track is lullaby paced, formed from little more than hushed vocals, murmuring guitars and sighing string arrangements. Almost every other song follows suit.
The risk of such subdued restraint is a tendency towards saminess, and There Are No Goodbyes does indeed require time before the subtleties of each melody slowly reveal themselves and the gentle shifts in tone between crushed unhappiness and grieving acceptance become clear. Just hear how A Last Dance (To Sad Eyes)’s bruisingly raw portrait of domestic sweetness turning sour progresses to the more resigned Obvious, which has a chorus as heartbroken, warm and final as a last hug goodbye.
Perhaps the most piercing song of all is Something, a country-tinged duet which plays Proper-Sheppard’s weary self-hating against the fluttery reassurances and sadness of Astrid Williamson’s vocal, both radiating desperate awareness that a treasured relationship is drowning. It’s closely matched by album centrepiece, Leaving, which weaves all the album’s strands of love, bitterness, self hate and heartbreak into one gently hypnotic, restlessly moving whole.
There are a couple of lesser songs, particularly the listless closer Portugal, but most of There Are No Goodbyes lingers as a startlingly graceful and beautifully realised elegy for lost love, heavy with hard won wisdom. It demands patience, but rewards it lavishly. --Jaime Gill
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