- Asylum Records
By Adam Theisen, Summer Senior Arts Editor
Published June 25, 2014
At the beginning of 2014, there was no more surefire pick for “breakthrough record of the year” than Ed Sheeran’s sophomore release. Even before the single “Sing” became a massive hit, Sheeran had spent the years since his 2011 album + (pronounced “Plus”) relentlessly touring and building up his fanbase, particularly in America, where he opened for Taylor Swift on her Red Tour. All this work culminated in three sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden last Fall, an astonishing feat for a singer-songwriter who’s only in his early twenties. With his first album, the very British, soon-to-be-inescapable Sheeran displayed his strength for falsetto melodies and better-than-average lyrics, but on new record x (pronounced “Multiply”) he too often takes missteps and falls into dull singer-songwriter ruts. However, Sheeran also demonstrates real talent, and some of the tracks are pleasantly different and bold.
True pop-music storytellers are difficult to come by, but Sheeran has showcased his ability to write vivid sketches of settings and characters. “The A Team,” the opening song off his debut album, was an ambitious, empathetic portrait of a London sex worker and boldly announced the arrival of a new voice. X’s opening track, “One,” mimics “The A Team” ’s soft, acoustic structure but features relatively boring, lovelorn words, a lyrical theme that holds for the entire record. Sheeran’s lyrical ability seems to regress this time around. Nothing is anywhere near as adventurous as the best stuff on +, and the songs are filled with flat platitudes like “Loving can hurt sometimes, but it’s the only thing that I know.”
The singer-songwriter tracks, the ones mainly just focusing on Ed and his guitar, make up a little more than half of the record. Lyrics aside, Sheeran can write some beautiful melodies and has a great voice. A few of the songs have strength when they’re stripped down, but often, in songs such as “I’m a Mess,” Sheeran just wallows and sings about getting drunk to numb the pain until you just want to go John Belushi in “Animal House” on his ass. When the British voted Coldplay as The Band Most Likely to Put You to Sleep, these were the kinds of songs they were thinking of.
All of this makes you wonder what exactly the problem is. When Sheeran tries to bring in Mumford-and-Sons-esque crescendos on these otherwise-boring songs, they feel too forced and makes you ask what he could’ve achieved with more intimate arrangements. However, even the sparse songs are usually too perfectly executed. Sheeran seems to lack a true emotional connection with what he’s singing, and even when his melodies are impeccably pretty, it’s hard to feel a bond with the singer. It’s like he’s not giving it his all or unconvincingly trying to play a persona. That’s not to say tracks like “Tenerife Sea” are bad, per se — even at his young age, Sheeran has a lot of experience crafting songs — but the unfulfilled potential is palpable.
These likely aren’t the songs that you’re going to hear on the radio, though. No, these distinctions belong to the already-a-smash “Sing” and clearcut follow-up choice “Don’t.” While both embody a similar, Justin-Timberlake-influenced vibe, the latter is great while the former misses the mark. The Pharrell-produced “Sing” totally miscasts Sheeran, giving him the blandest lyrics possible and overproducing his voice. Sheeran certainly can succeed as a pop singer, but this song is much more suited for Mariah Carey than a British troubadour. “Don’t,” on the other hand, is a home run. The minimalist bass-and-piano beat, courtesy of Rick Rubin, doesn’t get in the way of Sheeran’s show as he charismatically sing-raps the verses, effortlessly moving from one line to the next like they’re dominos falling in a row.
Sheeran’s rapping ability is also in top form on “The Man.” While nobody’s going to mistake him for Eminem, he expertly and confidently powers through the stream-of-consciousness verses, which give way to a slinky, understated chorus. When Sheeran’s at his best, he surprises you with his ability to impress in more genres than just folk-pop. The craziest moment on x comes when “Thinking Out Loud” starts with normal crooning singer-songwriter vocals until all of a sudden he goes into full-on “Let’s Get It On” mode. At first it’s hilarious because this red-headed British kid is trying to be Marvin Gaye, but then it’s just a jolt of excitement because he’s actually succeeding.
Sheeran’s record company certainly put a lot of muscle behind making x a hit (Pharrell’s presence alone proves that), but it’s clear that Sheeran was also complicit in this strategy. By all accounts, Sheeran has worked extremely hard to get where he is now, and I don’t want to criticize him for his well-deserved success, but — at least in its weakest moments — x smacks of a very talented artist holding back. The most encouraging thing, however, is that Sheeran is only 23. With as much talent and genre-bending flexibility as he has, right now, going forward with his music, there are a million different paths that he could take. Next album will hopefully feature a stronger Sheeran boldly venturing on the most ambitious path.