In Brief: Ed’s blend of “coffeehouse R&B” with more sensitive, singer-songwriter material brings to mind all the things I once liked about John Mayer, Jason Mraz, and Justin Timberlake. (Yeah… that last one’s not a typo.)
Well, chalk another one up to Saturday Night Live. It’s probably my only real exposure to popular music these days, for better or worse. And sometimes it’s kind of nice to have a singer or band appear on that show who I’ve never heard of before, and to not have any sense of how popular they are until I go look them up afterwards. It could be someone whose latest single is tearing up the charts, or it could be an artist with a more grassroots following, with a huge fan among the show’s cast and/or crew who lobbied to get them on the show, believing that they’re about to break through in a big way. Ed Sheeran was already pretty popular before his appearance on the show last spring, as far as I can tell, but the red-headed kid from England with the acoustic guitar and the killer falsetto hadn’t made his way to my ears yet. And what a way to make a first impression – all alone on a dark stage, strumming two simple chords on his guitar, flying solo for the entire first verse of “Sing”, by far his poppiest song to date, not revealing the backup band until after he’d already won me over. I half-expected him to do some sort of a “live looping” gimmick and just forego the backing band altogether (and I’m sure it’s a technique he must have experimented with when he was just starting out, given the highly rhythmic nature of his music), but either way, I’m a sucker for acoustic re-interpretations of more beat-heavy or “urban” genres that we don’t normally associate with the whole “coffeehouse” thing. It’s not like this was anything new. Jason Mraz hooked me with the same gimmick over a decade ago. John Mayer‘s influences were more blues and jazz than hip-hop and R&B, but I came to appreciate him for much the same reason. And while I could never get into Justin Timberlake‘s music, I could appreciate that underneath all the studio magic and sassy pop tunes, he was a hard-working musician and a hell of an entertainer. My first impression of Sheeran was that he had somehow managed to pull together all the things I used to like about those guys.
Sheeran’s second album, simply titled X (presumably as a follow-up to his also mathematically minded debut album +), didn’t drop until that summer. I waited for it to really dig into Sheeran’s music, since the two songs he’d piqued my interest with were both from that album. First few times through, I wasn’t quite as enthused as I’d hoped to be, to tell you the truth. The album seemed all over the place – a quiet folk song here, almost a rock song over there, then a few massive pop hits, and some other R&B-inflected stuff right before the record quieted down again. He seemed to be a man who restlessly dabbled in different genres, normally a thing I respect, but it just felt like he couldn’t settle on an identity. That became less of an issue as I got the hang of this album’s unusual flow – but I still think it’s more of a “Here’s a compilation of all the things I can do” type record than a truly cohesive collection of songs. When Sheeran scores – as he does on the big singles and a few other tracks that aren’t as in your face – it’s a magical sound to behold. When he slips up, it’s mostly due to the lyrics getting a little goofy. The nice part about all the musical change-ups is that over the course of twelve tracks, this record never really has the chance to get boring. (Dropping five tracks and leaving them for the bonus edition probably helped, because all of those are easily lesser material than what made the cut.)
There’s one rather odd choice that Sheeran apparently made at the eleventh hour with this record that kind of bugs me. It has to do with censorship of the swear words in several of his songs. It was his own decision to mute them all in the final recordings, at the behest of a taxi driver he had an interaction with whose daughter liked his music, which is sort of a sweet idea on the face of it. But it leaves awkward gaps in several songs – even in the chorus of one of the record’s biggest singles (which I guess would have ended up that way for radio’s sake anyway). I’m generally not a huge fan of profanity in music anyway, but it’s not like I don’t know what words fit into those glaring little gaps. If the aim was to make the music more family-friendly, why not just rewrite a few lyrics? The decision also seems a bit hypocritical if you consider that what makes music age-appropriate has more to it than just omitting a specific blacklist of naughty words. Several songs on this record allude to – or straight-up admit to – heavy drinking, drug use, and casual sex. Which is fine for a record made by a grown-up and intended to be listened to by grown-ups. It just makes the whole “so your kids can listen” excuse a bit suspicious.
Still, even if some of the flings and binges mentioned in a few of these songs might be TMI, there’s a confessional nature behind most of it that keeps the songs intriguing. The whole “party vs. purpose” debate seems to weigh on him heavily at times, and as a result, the title of X gains another unintentional meaning, because it’s about a man at the crossroads of his career, trying to figure out what’s most important to him. I’d rather hear a singer work through those issues honestly than write a bunch of fake love songs that barely scratch the surface, or a bunch of self-destructive party songs that glorify the excesses of fame. X ultimately leaves me with the feeling that while Sheeran is vulnerable to several temptations and not too proud to admit it, ultimately he seems to have a good head on his shoulders. The genuine and whole-heartedly committed love songs that wrap up the album serve to drive that point home. It’s a bit of a bumpy ride to get there, but I don’t mind.
The beginning of the album finds Ed quietly stumbling down a darkened street, drunk and depressed, pining over the one that got away. It’s a really weird place to start off, but the “lone guy with a guitar” atmosphere and the surprisingly tender vocals put his most important assets right up front. Whatever big pop hooks might lay in wait later in this album, whatever hotshot producers he may have brought in to craft massive radio hits, he still wants to present himself as a songwriter first and a pop star second. And while I haven’t listened to his previous album +, I get the sense that this song is sort of cleaning up loose ends from an old relationship, perhaps one that went on for a long time, that he needed to write this one final song to let go of. Even though he’s down and out, there’s a sense of finding a new beginning as he hits bottom: “All my senses come to life/While I’m stumbling home as drunk as I/Have ever been and I’ll never leave again/’Cause you are the only one.” When he begs her “Just promise me you’ll always be a friend”, it’s downright heartbreaking. I’ve been there before and it was too late to salvage even the friendship. Even though binge drinking wasn’t part of the equation in my case, I sort of get how he must have been feeling here.
2. I’m a Mess
This song begins to pick up the pace as Ed seems to wrestle with the notion of whether he can love someone new. Production-wise, this one pulls a neat trick, keeping the record in that whole “could just be an acoustic demo” sort of space for the first verse and chorus or so, until some light percussion and backing vocals are brought in later to add intensity as the song picks up steam. It could all just be Ed double-tracking himself, but it fits with that whole mantra of making the songwriting, melody, and the simple instrument at its core the focus, and then adding the window-dressing later on. Ed’s playing style here is more percussive, which gives this song more of a “rock” flavor than anything else on the album even though it’s fully acoustic. I love how he slowly builds up, his vocals cautious at first but becoming full-on passionate by the end of the song. It’s great fun to sing along to. Lyrically, I kind of thought this one was about rebounding and having a heartless fling at first, due to phrases like “drinking to suppress devotion” and the urgency of the phrase “Before tonight I want to fall in love.” But I think it’s that tension between carrying a torch for a previous lover you’ll never get back, and learning to test the waters again with a new one, that makes the song work so well. He doesn’t know he’ll be in love with this woman forever. He has no proof of how he’ll even feel the next day. But he has resolved to love her now and not let overthinking it get in the way, I guess. I love how the simple, repeating bridge of “For how long I love my lover, now, now” ends up overlapping with the chorus as the song builds towards a big finish… and then dismantles itself right back down to Ed and a few sparse guitar notes in the last few bars. The song seems nearly perfect, but it took me a while to realize that, because for a while there, I got hung up on a super-awkward lyric that comes at the end of the chorus: “Put your faith in my stomach.” I’m pretty sure that sticks out to everyone. We sing about the heart like we know the difference between the seat of our emotions and the actual, blood-pumping biological organ. But it’s a bit weirder when we sing about the gut in the same fashion. I know the line means, “Just trust my instincts.” But it’s an awkward thing to stumble across and have to explain to my wife when she’s in the car and I’m belting this one out like there’s no tomorrow. Because oh hell yes, is this one fun to sing along to.
So here’s where Ed hits you with the big pop hook right away. The programmed drums and keyboard effects churn along unabashedly, keeping time with Ed’s tasty acoustic guitar licks. This is the song that he wrote with Pharrell Williams, and you can tell that both men had “massive worldwide hit” on their minds, which I suppose is territory that Williams knows rather well by now. It seems like an odd mashup of styles at first, especially because Ed’s rapid-fire lyrics are borderline white-boy rap, but that’s what makes it so much fun. This is where I think back to other singers like Jason Mraz who used to have enough audacity to do goofy raps with acoustic guitars slung over their shoulders. It’s still just as much fun 10 years later, when the old guard has for the most part lost the imagination required to make it work. Which is not to say that Sheeran and Williams are lyrical geniuses here. This is a pretty simple (albeit rather wordy) tale of meeting a hot chick in a club and the two of them being flirty, passing the night away by dancing, drinking, smoking, and subtly coming on to each other, each hoping the other one will just come out and say what’s on both of their minds. Ed’s chorus is where I really get the Timberlake vibe, in the sense that the song almost sounds like a meaningless advert for himself, but it’s kind of irresistible to sing along, and he totally knows it. The song really isn’t about singing, it’s about wanting to know if this chick feels the same about him. But when a massive group sing-along takes over, with Pharrell jumping in to shout “Sing!” and “Louder!”, it’s hard not to obey. I thought this was a bit gimmicky at first, and I still think the song would be 100% catchy even without that last bit thrown in. But if you’re going to sing about singing, you should (a) be really good at singing, and (b) sing something that’s massively fun for the audience to participate in, and this song passes both tests with flying colors.
I pity anyone who has ever cheated on an articulate songwriter. Because you know they will write a song about it. Actually, this extremely sassy little piece of acoustic funk almost got left off the album because Ed thought it was too personal. But it was too catchy not to include. I’m really conflicted over the song, because it’s got an irresistible “Ah-la-la-la-la” hook, and a groove so thick your fork will stand up in it, but it’s a bit harsh. The chorus probably wouldn’t be radio hit material if its very first line, “Don’t f*** with my love” had been left unedited, but even with the word completely blanked out, the subject matter is still best left to grown-ups. Ed and his former lover were like passing ships in the night, both of them unsure whether they were looking for anything serious, but due to them both being traveling musicians, they got pulled back together again after periods of weeks and months of not seeing each other. Ed’s rapid-fire lyrics are quite detailed about the time they enjoyed together, and by that I don’t mean they’re graphically sexual – just the simple stuff like vegging out on the couch and watching films together gives you a sense of two young folks without a care in the world, playing house in whatever far-flung hotels they crossed paths in. Then another man quite abruptly interrupts the proceedings in the third verse, and he realizes he’s been the shoulder to cry on while she’s been cheating on him right down the same hallway. That’s where his words are angriest and I’m left thinking that blanking out a few f-words doesn’t really make the song any more appropriate for some guy’s kid to listen to. This is where I think, more than any other track on the album, that rewriting a few songs rather than just clumsily censoring them might have been the better approach, if age-appropriateness was such a concern. Still, if anyone’s ever done you wrong like this, it can be a cathartic listen.
Take the same basic musical mood from the previous song, but cut out all the anger, and you get a much fonder remembrance of a love that perhaps was never meant to last. This one doesn’t have quite as strong of a hook as the two songs that came before it (though very few songs do, for that matter). It’s more the sad piano that repeats throughout the song that really gives it character – it feels like the sort of reflective instrumental loop that might play underneath a pensive rap ballad. And Ed’s doing his sort of half-rap, half-singing thing to great effect, once again getting lost in the nostalgic little details of the time these two would spend together, geeking out over their favorite movies and music… in between all the sex and getting high, of course. (I’m mildly amused that he goes so far as to specify that they were “smoking illegal weed”. Are there places where one kind of weed is legal and another kind is not? I’m more of a live-and-let-live kind of guy when it comes to that sort of thing, but um, maybe you shouldn’t admit breaking the law to millions of potential listeners? Just sayin’.) Ultimately, I admire Sheeran’s wordsmithing on this one, and his foresight in making the decision to let go of a relationship that wasn’t sustainable in the long run, even if it hurt to let her go. But maybe there’s just a bit of TMI here.
While we’re on the topic of saying difficult goodbyes, this more traditional acoustic ballad comes along to ease us into the mellower second half of the record, taking a subtler approach to the sentimentality and the gooey falsetto we’ve heard in previous songs. His attitude here is closer to the “Better to have loved and lost” philosophy, offering a lover a photograph of him as a keepsake before they part ways. The quiet but effective guitar strumming keeps the song flowing at a steady pace, and while the results aren’t quite as show-stopping as some of his other performances, it’s nice to know Ed can operate in level-headed, reflective mode and not always need to show off.
This may be the chillest song ever written about taking Ecstasy. To be fair, I haven’t listened to a great deal of songs on the topic (or if I have, I’ve been too dumb to realize it), but I’d imagine most of them would be more hyperactive and danceable and happy. This one’s built around the cautious, steady pace of Ed’s guitar, evenly keeping time as if he were trying to keep himself calm and focused. Apparently he took the drug during a wedding celebration in Ibiza, and did his best later on to document the different waves of emotion that followed – the excitement and the hallucinations about being in love with inanimate objects, and the pounding pulse and the sense of impending doom that followed. The “chorus” if you could call it that, finds him swaying back and forth between the fear of death (“This is how it ends/I feel the chemicals burn in my bloodstream”) and apparent denial that he’s even taken enough of it to get much of an effect, as he repeats, “Tell me when it kicks in”. The song sort of settles into a long, slowly-building coda structured around that line and other echoes of different phrases from the song, and while it doesn’t climax in an alarming or depressing way, the song still sounds like a bit of a cautionary tale because the song plays out like someone retelling a nightmare.
8. Tenerife Sea
Sometimes, you’ve got to get away to a beautiful tropical island to get away from the harsh realities of life you’ve experienced on… another beautiful tropical island. I’ll admit I find it mildly amusing that both of these songs are about drastically different experiences on the beaches of sunny Spain. it didn’t make sense to me to have them back-to-back until I figured that out. For my money, this song is the better of the two, with its light but playful finger-picking and its sweet melody lazily looping back on itself. There’s something timeless about his description of a beautiful woman, framed in the most postcard-perfect natural setting, bringing a shining light of hope back into his life. It’s the mushiest song on the album, for sure, but I’m a sucker for songs that mix romance and travel, so of course I was going to fall for this one right away. I didn’t think of it until just now, but I love how the chorus declares “Should this be the last thing I see/I want you to know it’s enough for me”, because the previous song was haunted by the fear of death, and this one seems to be saying that if he went tomorrow, he’d die happy.
While this one’s a little more easygoing than the R&B-inflected songs in the front half of the album, it might be a little meatier subject-wise. At first I thought it was just a cute little story about two young people running away together set to a slick little groove. Simple escapism, nothing more. Then I paid closer attention the the lyrics and realized that this song is much more about the guy’s dad than the girl he’s talking about running away with. It’s implied, though never explicitly stated, that the father is abusive. Ed’s certainly upfront that the man drinks a lot and is pretty much useless, and that living there is totally suffocating him. The abuse could be more verbal, or even just come from total negligence rather than any violent action. Either way, it’s dark subject matter that you might easily miss, due to a beat that seems designed to make heads nod in happy agreement, and the sassy little vocal samples that punctuate the song.
10. The Man
I really didn’t like this one at first. As much as the sing-songy “white boy sort of rapping” bit tends to amuse me, it was quite a shock to hear Sheeran actually rap and not even try to pass it off as singing, letting a keyboard sample and a drum loop drive the entire song with only a few more subtle licks on the electric guitar as his instrumental contribution to the song. There’s still a chorus that he sings, and it helps to tie together a somewhat rambling story in which Ed ponders another prospective long-term relationship that didn’t work out, as well as the difficulty of balancing career and family, what would have happened if he hadn’t chosen the career path he’s currently on, and whether he’ll become one of those tragic young singers who flames out from a drug overdose at age 27. Yep, lots of ground to cover here, and his British accent (which surprisingly isn’t too noticeable when he sings) comes out in full force, making the flow of the song a bit awkward at first, even if his ability to string together words in a rapid fashion is admirable. (I’ll admit to being amused at the Bon Iver reference when he mentions “zoning out to ‘Holocene'”. Apparently “Nina” had a reference to “Re: Stacks” as well.) I have no idea whether he freestyled this one or wrote down the words ahead of time. Either way, it’s an impressive performance… just a super-awkward one to listen to.
11. Thinking Out Loud
I think this one is Ed’s current single. It’s one of the more down-tempo and sentimental tracks on the record, and one of the few where he trades his acoustic guitar for an electric. He’s definitely been wearing out some of his old R&B and soul records, and amazingly enough, his attempt to emulate the style is ac… well, i don’t know it well enough to tell you whether it’s convincing, but it’s a strong vocal performance that brings a bit of grit and passion to the table that isn’t heard in most of his other songs. This could have easily been a watered-down ripoff of John Mayer ripping off Eric Clapton, but somehow he makes it work. The lyrics, which are about being so in love that he’s in it for the long haul, and hopes to still feel that way when he’s old and arthritic and no longer a rock star in his prime, retread a well-worn subject, but he pulls it off well enough that it’s hard to believe the guy was actually 23 when he recorded it. This would have been a perfect place to end the album (and since Spotify doesn’t always tell me where album tracks end and bonus tracks begin, I assumed that it was for a while).
12. Afire Love
Got your tissues handy? ‘Cause this last one’s a tear-jerker. I had it mistaken for another mid-tempo pop song about romance at first, and that’s not untrue, but unlike most of the songs on the album, it’s not about Ed himself. The song is dedicated to his grandfather, who passed away from Alzheimer’s, and his grandmother’s unwavering love until the very end. It’s strong stuff, and Ed sings about it with a fair amount of gravity, though I sort of feel like the easygoing groove, the pleasant piano melody, and the “soundtrack-y” strings kind of distract from a song which is well-written and well-performed at its core. The extra production just isn’t needed here – all it does it take what could be a stark, devastating song and make it sound more middle of the road, making the story behind it easy to miss. The ending, with his entire family rising to sing a final “hallelujah” at the funeral, probably would have been more powerful the song leading up to it provided more of a contrast, I think. Still, Ed’s heart was in the right place here, and even if this doesn’t really work for me as the closing track, I think it could have been a really interesting break from a lot of the autobiographical material if it had been placed somewhere around the midway point, or even second to last.
The four or five bonus tracks that come with some editions of this album don’t really do it for me, so I didn’t plan on discussing them in detail. The most memorable of the bunch is “Take It Back”, a fully acoustic rap song that sounds like it was recorded live with absolutely no overdubs. Impressive, but goofy for the same reason that “The Man” was. Two songs are only really notable for their presence on film soundtracks – “I See Fire” from the second installment of The Hobbit trilogy, and “All of the Stars” from The Fault in Our Stars. The Hobbit song in particular had a lot of promise due to its acapella, old-worldly opening, but it soon settles into a rather dull ballad that finds Ed taking no chances while pointing out the bleeding obvious about dragons. Unless you’re a mega-fan who absolutely must have everything Ed has ever recorded, you can probably skip the extra goodies and just go with the standard edition of X.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
I’m a Mess $1.75
Tenerife Sea $2
The Man $.75
Thinking Out Loud $1.25
Afire Love $.75
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: