By Ben Royston
One would be forgiven for making the assumption singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran’s follow up album would not diverge much from his debut album, +. His first album was a tried and tested version of his previous released EPs, which shone with strong song writing and brilliant performances. Here is a growing solo artist with boundless talent. Although much of X could be seen as an extension of his debut, this album finds Sheeran in a very different place to the one we found him in three years ago. Sheeran’s ‘word-smith’ing is deeper and the production sharper and the album has a more pop sound (owing to the appearance of current top artist Pharrell Williams). Sheeran still writes what he knows best, sensitive serenades, intricate guitar work and brilliant grooves, but his tales of break ups and troubles of the heart have evolved and lyrically Sheeran is now one of the best around.
Honesty and decency are the key themes throughout X. As confessions go, they don’t come more candid than ‘I’m a Mess’, where any sympathy has been dismantled as Sheeran searches for a “sweet surrender”. ‘Thinking Out Loud’, is a classic bluesy love song with sentimental and passionately sung lines such as “Take me into your loving arms/kiss me under the light of a thousand suns”, which create the aura of deep untainted happiness. ‘Photograph’ has the passion and execution of many an epic pop ballad; one that the singer went as far as saying it would be the track on the album most likely to “change his career path“. The drunken antics of lead single ‘Sing’, which topped the UK charts, sees Sheeran try his fortune inviting a woman for dinner. Pharrell Williams’ involvement with production and BVs creates a slice of radio friendly R&B. However the use of R&B doesn’t necessarily work on ‘The Man’, which is on the dull side.
Unlike previously, Sheeran exhibits resentment, animosity and sexual longing in X. These candid emotions open up on ‘Don’t’, combining a catchy hand-clap beat with honest lyrics about an unfaithful lover in which a narrative that divulges details of a fleeting fling gone wrong is sorely revealed. Sheeran has certainly developed a more confessional approach to his song writing. Much like Taylor Swift or old school Fleetwood Mac, is there a better therapy for cheating partners than writing really successful singles about them?
One of the highpoints of X is Sheeran’s most personal track, Afire Love, a fitting climax to the album. A superbly crafted song which crescendos to a chorus concludes the album with not just a sing-a-long but also a lyric that questions life and leaves the listener craving a happy ending of sorts. The narrative of the singer’s grandfather’s decline from Alzheimer’s is accompanied by the heroic love his grandfather held for his grandmother. It’s a song of simultaneous sorrow and faith, and is an appropriately poignant tribute.
X is a truly great album and one of the best releases of 2014. Sheeran’s formula of modest arrangements, accompanied by heart-wrenching lyrics, may be similar to +, but after all, why fix what isn’t broken? Sheeran has, however, learnt from his previous work. Sheeran’s vocal performance is on top form, using everything from raw and passionate to a more delicate sound, but none the less daunting and utterly captivating. Using top producers Pharrell Williams and Rick Rubin has made this record sound polished and more accessible to a broader audience. And the ballads on X are probably his strongest yet, targeting the emotions of romantics all over the world. Just like +, there are love songs; there are stories of regret and anger and there are songs that don’t quite fit; but Sheeran has grown as an artist, as a singer and as a songwriter and multiplying certainly shows this progression from just a plus. Sheeran knows his audience and that his current skill is in writing chick lit style lyrics; but where he takes us next is how we will know whether to call him a truly great artist of our time.