Fuelled by Booze’n’Bon Iver, Ed Sheeran explores his musical horizons with confessional spirit.
It’s fair to say that whilst I’ve always appreciated Ed Sheeran’s talent, I’ve always had a problem with his ‘wholesomeness.’ The guy who I fell in love with for the genuinely brilliant ‘You Need Me…’ was seemingly propelled into the limelight with the saccharine ‘Lego House’, softening his loveable edges and fast becoming the poster boy for child-safe radio fodder. That’s not to say pop music has to be controversial to be worthwhile. But in Sheeran’s case, I definitely felt like something had been lost.
But much like his new bessie mate Taylor Swift, Sheeran has undergone something of a subtle rebranding – not too much to alienate fans, but just enough to show you that he is a real human being, not a record label robot with a knack for writing world dominating tear jerkers. The songs are still confessional, but definitely more personal; whilst ‘+’ tackled some difficult themes with touching sentimentality (‘A Team’, ‘Small Bump’), it always felt like they were emotions held at a distance. ‘X’, however, sees him admit his flaws and indeed, his growing sexual confidence without apology. Whether it be the frequent references to Booze’n’Bon Iver, the smoking of ‘illegal weed’ or the confident kiss off that is ‘Runaway’ (or the ‘Let’s Get It On’ aping ‘Thinking Out Loud’), this is definitely a boy who is beginning to own his reasonably unlikely sex symbol status.
As the opener to an Ed Sheeran record, you couldn’t really ask for much more than ‘One’. It’s everything you would expect from a man who wrote the pop genius that is One Direction’s ‘Little Things; proper, lighters-in-the-air-at-the-02-arena-stuff, with a satisfying finishing cadences that demands an audible ‘aaah’ from the listener. The stripped back, swooning is a theme that peppers the record with varying results; for every passionate, slow building ‘I’m a Mess’ or 'Bloodstream', there is a tawdry ‘Photograph’, which sounds a little too much like a Taylor Swift karaoke session for real comfort.
Interestingly enough, it is when Sheeran is more easily comparable to an RnB artist than a Country one that he is at his best. Everyone is familiar with SING, the Timberlake-worthy masterpiece that is easily one of the years best singles, but it is something of a red herring – nothing else on ‘X’ has the same effortless, modern groove. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though; ‘Don’t’ is propelled into excellence levels by it’s cool wit, probably causing the girl in question a fair bit of embarrassment at the brilliantly bitter lyric: ‘I never saw him as a threat/Until you disappeared with him to have sex of course.’
Whilst ‘The Man’ probably pushes his rapping status a little too far, ditching the soppy approach is definitely one that Sheeran should push further. He’s at his best somewhere between rapping and singing – ‘Afire Love’ has a tempo that elevates it out of the ballads, as does ‘Nina’, seemingly a natural extension from ‘+’ stnadout ‘U.N.I’. It manages to deal with the perils of ‘rock stars in long distance relationships’ in a way that avoids contrive, never coming across ungrateful. Take note Two Door Cinema Club.
It’s surely difficult to step away from that which has made you internationally famous, but what ‘X’ shows us is that Sheeran’s songwriting is strong enough to survive any genre. Indeed, ‘Take It Backs’ ‘I do my own thing now and get respect later’ makes it obvious that he is making slow, deliberate steps to escape his pigeonhole. Hopefully next time round, if he’s still into this maths thing, he can subtract some more of the obvious. Sure, it might divide fans, but it’ll be vital to his longevity.