Singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran is back with X, his second studio LP! But does the album mark a new spot of quality in his evolution as an artist or simply bore? 411's Jeremy Thomas checks in with his full review!
Ed Sheeran swears that he's not a sad man. Speaking at the launch party for his new LP X, the UK singer-songwriter said, "I'm generally a happy person, my songs just tend to be a bit down." And it's good for his career that this is the case; Sheeran's sad song mentality helped him break through with 2011's +, an album that netted him multiple award nominations (including two Grammys) and more than a couple wins, not to mention more than two million copies sold worldwide. Tracks like "The A Team," "Lego House" and "Give Me Love" tugged at the heart strings while he mixed a little hip-hop into the acoustic pop genre with the beats of "Drunk" and a smattering of R&B on tracks like "You Need Me, I Don't Need You." It made him one of the breakthrough artists of 2011 and 2012, giving him a platform that he used to further build his brand as a rising force within music.
It probably isn't surprising that on X, Sheeran is keeping his smiles toned down in favor of a melancholy style. Most artists find themselves replicating what worked on their first big success, whether because it happened to be their authentic voice or for fear of alienating the audience who wants another iteration of That Song They Liked. In Sheeran's case, it appears to be the latter because while X is filled with the same kinds of songs that permeated his first album, he also seems emboldened enough to expand his sound to positive results.
To be fair to Sheeran, he eases us into it. The new album kicks us off with "One," a track that is very much the sincere balladry of "The A Team" and sees Sheeran ask "Tell me that you turned down the man/who asked for your hand?" This is as pure and melancholy a love song as you can get, and it's the kind of thing we already know that Sheeran does very well. That acoustic ballad sound continues in the opening of the confessional "I'm a Mess" until about midway through the song, when it opens up and picks up into a more expansive sound. The message is just as mellow as the previous song but it takes on a new dynamic and Sheeran makes great use of the opportunity before throwing out the single that really turned the idea of what most people think of Sheeran on their heads, "Sing." Teaming up with Pharrell Williams, he delivers a much heavier R&B sound and kicks into a sexy falsetto groove over a staccato strum before flowing into a full-on rap verse. This is a new Ed Sheeran and while we haven't lost the shy singer/songwriter that was carefully cultivated on the back of +, it's definitely eye-opening in a good way.
And let's be perfectly fair, lest people suspect that his seeming sincerity on + was a farce; the whole of that album was much more varied than his label let on by the marketing strategy. There were signs of someone much deeper and more interesting rippling just under the surface and on X Sheeran is allowed to break the surface. The lyrical content takes a somewhat darker tone than much of +, a daring move than pays off. When he busts out with "Don't fuck with my love" on "Don't" and sings, "Baby bring the lemon and a bottle of gin/we'll be in the sheets until the late AM" you realize that this is a more confident Sheeran who isn't afraid to cut loose and won't let the acoustic melodies restrain him.
Sheeran works with a much wider set of producers here than he did on +, with the likes of hitmaker Benny Blanco, the aforementioned Williams, Rick Rubin and Kanye/Jay Z collaborator Jeff Bhasker taking on the production elements...not to mention Sheeran himself. The experimentation produces songs that aren't just pretty; they're powerful. On "Bloodstream" Rubin underlays a rather stripped down but effective beat while Sheeran ponders how he got "so faded" and ponders, in a drunken haze, "This is how it ends/I feel the chemicals burn in my bloodstream." He funks it up a bit with the R&B-tinged "Runaway" and goes back in a hip-hop direction with "The Man." If you can get past the image of a guy like Sheeran rapping, it's actually not bad at all.
In truth, the only problems on X are when he tries to fit himself back into the mellow singer-songwriter mold. "One" is effective, but you can't put Pandora back in the box and on a couple of other examples he seems like he's trying too hard. "Photograph" is pretty but unmemorable while on "Tenerife Sea" he sounds like he's doing what he thinks people expect from him. These are the uninteresting parts of Sheeran, the perfunctory parts that just aren't as interesting. The rest of the album largely soars and makes for a more intriguing artist that excites me far more than he did with his first effort.
Standout Tracks: "I'm a Mess," "Sing," "Don't," "Bloodstream," "Runaway," "Thinking Out Loud"
Skippable: "Photograph," "Tenerife Sea"
The 411: On X Ed Sheeran breaks free from the square box that was the acoustic singer-songwriter act on his first LP, a and the results are largely quite good. He's still singing sad songs, but he's varied the sound to a more dynamic, interesting and authentic-sounding voice. Sheeran made himself a household name with +, but on the follow-up he makes himself something far more interesting: a musical artist.