Ed Sheeran has always excelled in a live setting. After all, he only got signed after trudging the boards at gig after gig and his tours (where he performs without a backing band) have been hugely popular across both sides of the pond.
The production of ‘x’ has attempted to capture this, bringing his skills as a singer and guitarist to the fore in almost every track - something that’s immediately apparent from the opening. Rather than beginning with current single Sing, One and I’m A Mess are typical examples of his acoustic balladry. It starts the album on a bit of whimper, but the hits do kick in.
Sheeran is stuck in something of a dichotomy between acoustic love songs and hip-hop, two styles that don’t really join together. It’s on the two Pharrell produced tracks that the latter takes prominence: Sing and Runaway. Both fuse funk riffs with hip-hop beats in a clear attempt to replicate the success of Justin Timberlake’s early hits, but Sheeran just doesn’t have the sex appeal to pull it off in the same way. Then on The Man he delivers a full on rapping monologue. It’s meant to be a hard-hitting aesthetic, but with lines like “I stay more celibate than in a monastery” and “but when I broke the industry that’s when I broke your heart” he’s hardly Eminem or The Streets.
And that’s not the only impression he offers. Thinking Out Loud is pure John Mayer; Nina is essentially Sheeran covering Michael Jackson’s Dirty Diana; and Photograph is the sort of storytelling balladry that’s made Taylor Swift so popular. Since the release of his debut, Sheeran has worked with various collaborators whose influences have clearly rubbed off on him. With ‘x’ he’s gently pushing the boundaries of his own sound to create a coherent album, but the results are mixed.
The main dichotomy though, is between Sheeran wanting to be taken seriously as an artist and wanting to please his legions of female pop fans. For every track that focuses on a more provocative subject (Bloodstream or the spiteful Don’t), there’s a Photograph, a Tenerife Sea or an Afire Love – soppy, vomit-inducing love songs. His songwriting ability may have matured since ‘+’ – you won’t find a “blu-ray, true say” here – and his lyrics are certainly more personal, but the clunky rhymes are far from the heights of sophisticated wordplay, the best hooks often simply “oohs” and “aahs” (as on Sing). Throughout the album, his vocal delivery is content with being gentle and soft and is in need of a bit of bite and attitude.
Occasionally he finds a sweet spot to appease everyone with some great pop moments. The final third of I’m A Mess is one long hand-clap fuelled crescendo that’s sure to get fans singing along; the moody Nina similarly breaks down in the bridge; Don’t and Runaway do have a certain infectious swagger to them; and if you can swallow the vomit, Tenerife Sea is quite a sweet little song. The deluxe version also features I See Fire from the soundtrack to The Hobbit, which sees Sheeran at his most beautiful and haunting. No doubt when the inevitable tour comes around, Sheeran’s talents as a live act will give these songs the boost they need.
* I’m A Mess
* I See Fire
Listen: ‘x’ is available now.