Those who haven’t been living under a rock since 2011 will likely know the name “Ed Sheeran” by heart at this point. His debut single, “The A-Team”- an acoustic ballad about the struggles of a drug-muddled cocette from a bird’s eye view -was sort of an international hit, after all. A small while after that, his second single, “Lego House”, making it into the US Adult Top 10 with relative ease. It even attracted the likes of Harry Potter star Rupert Grint to Sheeran’s soundscape, playing a major part in its music video that proves it’s possible for someone to like somebody a little too much. Since then, Sheeran has made countless appearances on international television with his songs being covered by several reputable names across the globe including Demi Lovato, Fifth Harmony, and YouTube star Kina Grannis with Pentatonix’s Scott Hoying and Kevin Olusola.
Enough of covering past history, though.
Nearly three years after the release of his groundbreaking debut album +, Ed’s hitting the music scene again with sophomore LP, x. As heavily hinted at with the grooving, funk-ridden beat of x’s first single, “Sing”, Sheeran delivers a whole other style on his sophomore album that’s both entirely new and entirely himself. He’s not doing it alone, either, as everyone’s favorite singing ginger decided to team up with industry legends Pharrell and Rick Rubin to take the album’s production up a few notches and point it in its new direction.
While the slow-burning and tender acoustic folk tracks that made Sheeran a star are still present on x, more songs than not are spent exploring new territory with the help of the aforementioned superstar producers to expertly weave through rap bars, funk basslines, and soulful electric melodies like never before. The result is as amazingly well-done as it is purposely divergent from Ed’s past performances, and given the deliberateness to experiment with a new sound, it’s surprising that his first effort doing so has turned out so well. x is nicely paced and astoundingly organic for the amount of new styles Ed experiments with, giving props where props are due to him as an artist for being able to keep his head in the game and believe in what he’s working with regardless of sonic execution.
The opening lines of deluxe edition track “Take It Back” ironically hit the album’s vision right up against the head: “I’m not a rapper, I’m a singer with a flow”, Sheeran delivers across a breakneck series of bars. For someone who’s not a rapper, he raps surprisingly well. Perhaps extended work with Yelawolf and covers of Blackstreet and Macklemore with Passenger prove that he’s been brushing up on his skillz since long before his audience was in the know on ’em. Still, it doesn’t make it anymore astounding as a general fan of his to behold their spitfire nature for the first time, and he does so across multiple tracks on x : “Sing”, “Don’t”, “The Man”, and “Take It Back”.
Even better than the sheer fact that Ed Sheeran has a rap game, though, is that he doesn’t sacrifice his sense of self, lyrically, just for a catchy hook. “Sing” is about as prototypical of mainstream music as it gets, and even then, it’s in Sheeran’s genuine enthusiasm that he is able to sell the track. For his first foray into funk, it’s impressive, if not polarizing. “Don’t” is a lustful romper that seems to tell the sincere story of Sheeran’s months-long off-kilter love with someone in the same industry as him. Meanwhile, “The Man” is one of the painfully striking tracks on the entire album in how utterly and unapolegetically blunt it is.
Outside of the now-trademark rap implementations, there’s plenty of other talents of Ed’s explored on x that have gone either previously unfounded or totally expanded upon. Album-opener “One” prominently features nothing but his tender falsetto with sparse, though properly affecting buildup in the low-key instrumentation. “I’m A Mess” is an epic folk/rock anthem with an explosive, seemingly Irish-influenced bridge, integral group hand-clapping withstanding. “Runaway” is delivered with a certifiable hip-hop swagger minus the rap and plus some wild vocal work whereas “Tenerife Sea” is a heart-wrenchingly beautiful acoustic ballad with light tinges of Bon Iver palpable throughout the layered vocal work.
Speaking of Bon Iver, two of their songs are mentioned on the album (“Re:Stacks” and “Holocene”). Snow Patrol is mentioned once in a nod to “Chasing Cars”. Heck, there’s even a Jack Black reference on “Take It Back” that goes as far back into the actor’s repertoire as School of Rock. All of this real-life references aren’t just a great way for Sheeran to seamlessly integrate his favorite media and fellow musicians into his work, but a way for his music to seem even more human and more relatable than it would’ve otherwise been. There’s a particular charm that has always been intertwined within his musicality and it remains tangible here.
Elsewhere, “Thinking Out Loud” may very well be the song of 2014 thus far. On the track, Sheeran delivers an infectious hook with incredible soul that many wouldn’t have expected to hear ever come out of the younger singer-songwriter’s mouth. Not only is he a strong lyricist and clever musician, but he’s got more raw vocal power in his wispy tone than we’ve ever given him credit for. This song could easily be the soundtrack to any romantic movie scene or even the backdrop to a wedded couples’ first dance. It’s a universal powerhouse on an already great album that really tops the entire ensemble. Its follow-up and regular edition album-closer, “Afire Love”, is no pushover either as Sheeran delivers one of the most honest stories he’d ever told across an ethereal, piano-centric melody which builds in its intensity with more instruments as the song continues.
In fact, x could very well be the album of the year once all is said and done. From bottom to top, x is as filled to the brim with driving, catchy beats and bravely-executed musical experimentation as it is the severe honesty and clever cracks that people around the globe had already fallen in love with Sheeran for several years back. For just a sophomore effort, the album is incredibly slick and comes in as an album more collectively whole than his original effort in +. Deservedly, it reserves a HEARTY recommendation from myself to any self-respecting fan of the music scene, period.
Is it the perfect album? Not necessarily. It’s as near as Ed has ever come to it, though. He’s so close to hitting the nail squarely on the head and at such an early moment in his career. All he essentially needs is more experience out on the field and, as it stands, he deserves the cred for a job greatly done.
You can purchase the deluxe version of x by Ed Sheeran on iTunes for just $12.99. That’s 16 tracks for roughly $1.23 a pop — a discounted fee from iTunes typical $1.29!
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Also see: 20 Indie Love Songs of 2014 (So Far)!