This is Ed Sheeran's Achtung Baby moment
Artist: Ed Sheeran
I must admit that I have been haunted by Ed Sheeran’s ‘I See Fire’ ever since I heard it at the end of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Though the song did not suit the mood of the film, it resonated with me in a way few songs have done. With each successive national calamity, I have often found words from the song echoing in my head: ‘If this is to end in fire/Then we should all burn together /Watch the flames climb high into the night/…Oh, should my people fall/Then surely I will do the same/…Desolation comes upon the sky’.
Ed Sheeran has a startling knack for compelling songs (‘Lego House’, ‘A Team’, ‘Small Bump’, ‘Give Me Love’ and ‘You Need Me Man, I Don’t Need You’ on the first album) in the acoustic pop vibe, with some rap-inflected lines that stay with you. Belying his 23 years of age, he can be evocative, mature and at the same time emotional. His chubby-redhead-moptop image initially had me overlook him until a Skrillex/Ed Sheeran mashup (‘Bangarang/Lego House’) turned me on to him. His debut album + (2011) was a revelation. His sophomore album X was thus an album I was really looking forward to.
However, on first listen, more than half of the new album left me scratching my head. Instead of turning into Dylan, it seems Ed actually wanted to be Timberlake. More than half the songs are full-on R’n'B or funk inflected.
While the album starts with a traditional guitar ballad, the lovelorn ‘One’ is a false start. With the second song ‘I’m A Mess’, the songs start morphing into something more pop. With the third song, the Pharrell Williams-produced single ‘Sing’, one gets a full-on R’n'B track. Once you get over the hump of the What The Fudge moment, the song grows on you.
As mentioned earlier, a lot of the album is soul-funk. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. The compositions are brilliant as ever and Sheeran has always tended towards fusing rap flows with folk and pop. But those genres rarely need the vocal dexterity and emotive power of soul and R’n'B music. On each of the R’n'B and soul tracks, one can imagine someone else singing the same song much better. "Don’t" could have been better sung by, say Sisqo or Blackstreet (the song resembles ‘No Diggity’ by the latter). Heck, even Adam Levine could have sung it better. Lyrically, ‘Don’t’ is voyeuristic: it details a fling on the road with a co-star (Taylor Swift? Ellie Goulding? Both are speculated to be Ed’s girls) and how she cheats on him. Similarly, ‘Thinking Out Loud’ is a potentially classic soul song, only Ed’s voice cannot manage the jump. He does a decent enough job but it is a song that cries out to be covered by someone who makes it their own
It may also be that some of the songs are too far removed from what we expect from Sheeran. Justin Timberlake managed the tough task of crossing over into urban music but then again he did not have that far to go from N’Sync’s R’n'B-inflected dance pop. For Sheeran, with his earnestness, a jump to R’n'B lothario may just be a jump too far. In this sense, this album, on first listen, is a disorienting mess. It tries everything. Some experiments work barely, others work brilliantly. But then slowly the album grows on you.
Three things save the day: Ed’s remarkable facility for catchy melodies, his brilliant acoustic guitar play and his lyrical brilliance. Sheeran’s catchy hammered on riffs (‘I See Fire’) and driving funky rhythms (‘Sing’) carry the songs. Lyrically, Sheeran’s brilliance is not of the type where his lines are brilliant: his forte has been to capture unusual vignettes in song. He is rarely obvious and he is almost always interesting.
‘Afire Love’, for example, brings a strange end to the non-deluxe version of the album: it is a song about a relative with Alzheimer’s and about losing him through the course of the song. It starts by dealing with tragedy and ends up being exultant in that his family finds togetherness in tragedy and heartbreak ("And now my family is one again/Stapled together." Similarly, ‘Even My Dad Does Sometimes’ is a gorgeous ballad: of all things, he quotes the poet Dylan Thomas ("Rage against the dying of the light") and explores men dealing with old age and mortality. In this, Ed Sheeran shows his most remarkable ability, his ability to be deep and different. On the flipside, one may argue Sheeran talks about some things you suspect he has not experienced (pregnancy in ‘Small Bump,’ drug-addicted prostitutes in ‘A Team’) or is too young to talk about ("I will be loving at 70" in ‘Thinking Out Loud’). But then Keats did the same, so if done with brilliance, the youth of a precocious talent becomes rather irrelevant.
That being said, for most part, lyrically Sheeran is youthful. A lot of the album deals with love and heartbreak of the youthful type. It seems aimed at teens and those in their twenties. Whether these songs resonate with you depends on how old your heart is. He is very generation Y touching popular culture, namechecking Stevie Wonder and Chuck Berry and others, and talking about things one does in their youth (stay in, smoke up, watch DVDs). ‘Nina’ (my favourite up song on the album) works better in a way ‘Sing’ struggles to. It is a brilliantly catchy kiss-off to a love from days past who may or may not have cheated on Ed. ‘The Man’ shows Ed rap convincingly. In ‘Take It Back’, he states that "I am not a rapper/ I am a singer with a flow" but he raps more intelligently in the album than most anyways.
After a while, one realizes that this change of Sheeran was not on a whim but necessary. This is Ed Sheeran’s Achtung Baby moment. He needed to evolve to continue to be relevant. There are only so many earnest guitar ballads one can stand. That being said, there are some songs here to please the original fans too: "Photograph" is a gorgeous ballad. "Tenerife Tea" is similarly so, and works even better on the album as it contrasts well with the more up and R’n'B laced tracks.
Fame has, also in a way, undercut Sheeran’s ability to connect in all instances. While his emotional honesty was his landmark, now he writes about problems of touring and of being a star. In that, he loses us: one cannot really connect with a song about a fellow touring star who cheated on Ed. In that the sheen is coming off of Sheeran’s everyboy confessional appeal, sort of how the millionaire Springsteen cannot really now write that convincingly for the blue collared worker.
Two deluxe editions of the album are also available and have five to six extra tracks. I recommend the 17 track deluxe version as it has the superlative "I See Fire." "Take it Back" is also a bonus track and shows one of his greatest qualities: he is self-effacing (I am a singer you never want to see shirtless/I accept the fact that someone has to win worst-dressed) and he has a sense of humor, even when bragging. In this, Sheeran has staying power. He is canny and commercial, all the while being authentic. This is where he will outlast his more one-dimensional peers like the retro, humorless Jake Bugg or even the similarly precocious Lorde.
In conclusion, whatever be your age or musical preference (no, not metal) you will find something that strikes a chord with you in X. It is an album worth investing yourself in.