At first glance, Ed Sheeran doesn’t look like your typical pop star. The 23-year-old singer-songwriter is admittedly a tad bit schlubby, and his ginger hair grows out, or maybe even pulled thanks to nervous tendencies, in different directions. Alas, the pop world fell in love with him after his 2011 debut album +, which included the hit “The A Team,” helped push him into the spotlight.
Since then, Sheeran has become an in-demand collaborator. He has since written songs for CeeLo Green, Usher, Hilary Duff and friends Taylor Swift and One Direction. He even penned “I See Fire” for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug soundtrack.
Sheeran is now hoping to expand his musical horizons with his sophomore release, X (read “multiply”). Unlike +, X features the British singer-songwriter is slowly pushing his way into new territories. No longer is he only lovelorn; he can churn out a vengeful tune, get a little funky with Pharrell Williams, and then feel safe enough to go back to the emotional usuals.
Read on as we try to break down Sheeran’s latest effort to musical maturity.
X eases new and old fans alike with “One” as it’s a gentle reminder of what made fans fall in love with Sheeran in the first place. “One” is a slow and sweet ballad with just a touch of melancholy. As per the lyrics, Ed is lost, sad and, at times, drunk. And while he may not get to call his love interest his own just yet, he wants her to “promise [she'll] always be a friend.” Yes, it’s a little bit desperate but he manages to find some hope in his desperation.
2. I’m A Mess
Just as we’re getting started, Sheeran slams on the breaks with “I’m A Mess.” The track feels one-noted, boring, lacks emotion, and even feels formulaic at times. By the time the kick drum drops in, I’m already itching to hit the “next” button. The build-up is just a little too late for my liking.
The mood picks up once again with Sheeran’s lead single, “Sing.”
Admittedly, when I first heard the song back in April, I just couldn’t like it right away. The opening guitar riff felt reminiscent of the opening theme song of the HBO show, The Flight of the Conchords. As a result, every time I heard “Sing,” I expected someone to go, “Brett?” “Present.” “Jemaine?” “Present.” “And Murray? Present.”
“Sing” eventually did grow on me thanks to the track’s funky nature, courtesy of last year’s man of the summer, Pharrell Williams. Did it first seem out of place in Sheeran’s repertoire? Yes, especially considering the big production put behind the track, a striking contrast to his usual acoustic guitar set up. The drums are a hell of a lot louder, there’s more vocal layering, and it’s all just in your face. But it’s also indicative of Sheeran’s willingness to experiment, which truthfully, I would’ve like to have seen more on this track.
Produced by Rick Rubin, the song’s reputation precedes itself as it’s been rumoured to have been written about former Sheeran flame, Ellie Goulding. The biting song about a cheating love interest makes us wonder just how much of his new turn was influenced by Sheeran friend, Taylor Swift, who’s quite famous for her own vengeful material. The song is poppy, full of sass, and if he isn’t afraid of being questioned about the track, or if we as an audience could easily separate the rumours from the music, it should be Sheeran’s follow-up single.
Like the track before it, “Nina” invites yet more rumours surrounding Sheeran’s love life, he doesn’t seem that weary of hiding this ex’s identity. Most likely written about singer Nina Nesbitt, whose career had been giving a helping hand by Sheeran and who stars in his video “Drunk,” “Nina” is just as biting as “Don’t.”
Forget what they say about Taylor Swift; you don’t want to be the one Sheeran’s mighty pen and guitar attacks.
Here’s another signature Ed Sheeran track. “Photograph” is slow, heartfelt, hopeful, with a sound that slowly builds as the steady drumbeat ushers in the strings. Beauty.
Produced by super music dude Rick Rubin, we’re back to a love-scorned Sheeran who’s looking for comfort at the bottom of a beer bottle, again. But the real highlight of this track is his voice that manages to convey so much in minutes: false confidence, desperation, loneliness. In other words, the kinds of emotions one goes through whenever they turn to the bottle to forget about unrequited love.
8. Tenerife Sea
And we’re back to being in love again. The singer-songwriter sings gently as he describes the way his lady love looks. This is probably the folksiest song on the record, with hints of classic pub music.
We’re now back to a funky, bass-driven tune enhanced by a faint “call me” that echoes in the background. It’s interesting, but yet another weak link in the album.
10. The Man
It’s no secret that Sheeran likes to rap when he can so it’s a little remarkable that the album lasted so long without him dropping a rhyme (save for a few quick ones in “Sing”). Carried out by a loud drum beat and a guitar rift, Sheeran raps with a nice British lithe that goes away whenever he sings.
This track also features the singer-songwriter at his most vulnerable. No longer shielded by his romantic exterior or newfound vengeful voice, he comments just how difficult it is to keep up a decent work-life balance as his star continues to rise. No, former flame, he doesn’t want to be with you now but he can’t help but think about how different life would be like if he chose the other path.
11. Thinking Out Loud
“Thinking Out Loud” is just another tender, gorgeous love song. It’s highly romantic, beautiful and touch jazz-like. I can’t help but think it’s exactly what rom-com filmmakers will be looking for next time they need to score the dance scene where the main characters discover just how in love they are with each other. But that’s just me thinking out loud on my favourite song on the album.
12. Afire Love
“It was all good yesterday,” Sheeran sings on the track about his late grandfather. “Afire Love” probably has the second highest production second to “Sing,” using strings gently in the background to help create a wave of sound. It’s charming, full of emotion and a nice way to end the album.
While he might have not have reached his full potential, Ed Sheeran manages to deliver a pop album that has a broader array of sounds and which features a willingness to experiment. A for effort, B+ for execution.