I’m a huge Ed Sheeran fan, and I love the guy for a number of reasons. One of those reasons, and the one which is least relevant to this review is that since the release of + back in 2011 he’s made being ginger almost socially acceptable again. I can’t remember the last time someone shouted ‘Ron Weasley!’ at me in public, and over the past few years when someone’s told me they like my songs instead as a joke I haven’t really minded. Trust me, it takes a lot to out-ginger Rupert Grint. It was a redheaded seesaw, and it started moving around the time Ed Sheeran became one of the biggest names in music after his major label debut + saw him blow up the world over. The main reason I love Ed Sheeran is that he’s genuinely very good at what he does, and when I saw him blow up I remember thinking that he couldn’t deserve it more, having worked incredibly hard for a number of years beforehand. From writing and recording songs in his bedroom at 16 to playing Madison Square Garden at 23 Ed Sheeran has well and truly made it, and his popularity will only grow with the release of X.
I mention of all this because, when the lead single from his second mainstream record X dropped a few months ago it wasn’t the Ed Sheeran I knew and loved, and when a video containing strippers and a limo accompanied it a few weeks later it was another cause for concern, a suggestion that maybe Ed Sheeran had strayed away from the style and sound which made his earliest EP’s and a large amount of + so refreshing. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that I was cautious going into X, a record which has greatly lessened my doubts since but hasn’t completely erased them. There’s a clear urban influence this time round, most noticeably on Sing, but it doesn’t play as big a part as you’d perhaps expect. This R&B / hip-hop feel isn’t massively different to styles Sheeran’s toyed with in the past (there’s a very One Night feel to fourth track Don’t), it’s just that now the production and songwriting is ambitious enough to really experiment and showcase it. This is still very much Ed Sheeran doing what he does best; he’s just changing things up slightly, as is often necessary in the industry. Sheeran has stayed true to himself whilst expanding his horizons, and as a result X isn’t a second +, it’s a continuation, but it’s also a development; a bigger, bolder release which still mixes traditional Sheeran-esque love songs with a few Timberlake reminiscent soul-pop anthems. It’s tough to say whether it’s a real leap in the right direction, but to criticise an artist for moving forwards is wrong, especially when they’re as abundantly talented as Ed Sheeran is.
A lot of the songs on X were co-written by Irish folk troubadour Foy Vance, with whom Sheeran also collaborated on last year’s incredible Joy Of Nothing, Vance’s second record. His influence is clear throughout, and Sheeran’s peer has rubbed off on him both vocally and lyrically. There’s always been a maturity to Ed’s music but on X, aside from the more commercialised Sing and Runaway he seems older and wiser without losing the charm that characterised past works. Take closer Afire Love, which deals with his Grandfather’s battle with Alzheimer’s, a scenario I can relate to myself having witnessed a love one lose themselves a few years back. It’s an incredibly touching song, rousing, and when it blossoms into life for what is arguably X’s best chorus it’s just as inspiring, a firm highlight as Sheeran sings ‘With your body next to mine our hearts will beat as one / and we’ll set alight / we’re afire love’. It could perhaps do without the preaching final minute or so, but it ends the record on a high, hitting hard, and it’s easy to see how Vance could play a part of it. Vocally, X tries a few new things, a few of which are plucked from Vance’s own style. Ed seems much more willing to push himself vocally, most evident on Thinking Out Loud, one of the best songs he’s written to date. Whereas on opener One he opts for a high-pitched, delicate delivery, here there are moments where he shouts but never loses the melody. In a number of ways Sheeran has never sounded better, conjuring up some vivid, love-filled imagery and relaying it with a powerful vocal delivery which soars over a jazz-influenced backdrop. It’s one of X’s mellowest tracks but also it’s most memorable, special. It’s preceded by The Man, which immediately draws comparisons to Plan B’s debut album Who Needs Actions When You Got Words? as Sheeran switches between thoughtful rapping and a soulful chorus as he remembers a past relationship and wonders how things would be today if he wasn’t a successful musician (‘The irony is if my career in music didn’t exist in six years yeah you’d probably be my wife with a kid’). It could also merit a likeness to The Streets, Mikill Pane or Devlin, and as a result it perhaps wouldn’t seem out-of-place on Ed’s No.5 Collaborations Project EP – not quite grime, but not exactly pop either. It’s another of the many styles that feature on X, and it doesn’t deviate massively lyrically. For the most part Ed reminisces and ponders, contemplating past loves, current loves, future loves and his penchant for drink and drugs, all of which feature in compelling narratives and well written songs, a few of which throw in a few Bon Iver references on The Man and the nostalgic storytelling Nina. X is playful and poetic, but it’s also darker in a sense – troubled at times, as is the case on Bloodstream,which sees Ed at a low as he sings ‘I’ve been looking for a lover / Thought I’d find her in a bottle / God make me another one / I’ll be feeling this tomorrow’. Tracks like the sickly sweet Tenerife Sea will guarantee weak knees, whilst the funky Don’t inspires some sympathy with its tales of infidelity on tour. It’s all a mixed bag in terms of styles and content, but it’s also a mixed bag in terms of quality and consistency, because for all of its good intentions and creativity X does occasionally stumble. Bloodstream sounds diluted bar a layered final minute which shows Sheeran’s continuing affinity for the loop pedal, whilst the boisterous Runaway is fairly forgettable despite some great production. I’m still not a fan of Sing either, which has failed to grow on me since it’s release.
I look back on Ed’s already sizable discography, and although there’s little denying that X is a brilliant record the songs it contains don’t ‘move’ me in the same sort of way, if that makes sense. I can go back and listen to tracks like Cold Coffee and Postcards and still get goosebumps six years on, but on X there was only a few moments (on Afire Love, Photograph and Thinking Out Loud) where I was genuinely overwhelmed by the song I was listening to. I can’t pinpoint exactly why that is, but to me it feels like X is lacking in this regard, and I’d be perhaps swayed to favour his older material ahead of it, although that’s more of a compliment of his first few EP’s / albums than it is a glaring criticism of his current material.
The deluxe edition of X features four additional songs, a few of which have been floating around for a while now. The building epic I See Fire featured on the soundtrack to the latest The Hobbit film, whilst the sharp-tongued Take It Back was uploaded to SB.TV’s YouTube channel a few months back. Both are very good, and the latter merits the purchase of the deluxe version alone, a witty and welcome reminded of Sheeran’s rapping ability, full of smart one liners and a nod to friend and tour mate Foy Vance which made me smile upon hearing it. Even My Dad Does Sometimes is a comfort giving, relaxing track, whilst Shirtsleeves sounds like something Sheeran would’ve released prior to +, a brilliant, sunny track. I’d recommend this version; it definitely adds something more to the overall experience.
X is the sound of an artist who isn’t afraid to push the envelope of his music and branch out. At times it does fall slightly flat, but for the most part it’s a triumphant continuation, the next step in Sheeran’s musical journey. It’s a change, but its far from an alienating one. If you like Ed Sheeran’s music prior to X you’ll most likely enjoy it, because he really delivers here despite a few weaker songs.
Rating – 8/10
Listen to: The Man / Thinking Out Loud / Afire Love
4 thoughts on “Ed Sheeran – X (Review)”
Ed has been one of my all time favorite artists and I’ve been a huge fan until last week. Wasn’t too happy with “Don’t” because it sounded so angry and vindictive, but then I found out more details and understood. Was surprised that Ed included a dis about his hometown girlfriend on his new album in “The Man.” How many years ago did that ship end now? Absolutely can’t get over his reference to “Part-time Lover” by Stevie Wonder in “Nina.” This was in especially poor taste considering the tantrum he threw over infidelity in his other songs. Sounds like Ed thinks cheating is okay for him. Hypocrite! Dirty chauvinist! And the line about wondering if Nina would have been his part-time lover, like she’s some kind of a whore, is so gross!!! I’ve had to take all of Ed’s songs off of my playlist for now, I’m just so insulted by “Nina” and very disappointed in him. : (
Thanks for the comment. Having looked into the back-story on ‘Don’t’ as well I get his anger, I don’t think anyone could have any complaints about the content after a bit of research. As for ‘The Man’ I think it’s just as much to do with his new found fame as it is with his past relationship. If I’d suddenly become a global superstar I’d probably spent a lot of time reflecting as well, I think it helps to keep him grounded, and everyone remembers their first love. After hearing your thoughts on ‘Nina’ I’m slightly torn. ‘Part-time lover’ can mean prostitute, but in ‘Nina’ I think Ed’s trying to distinguish between casual sex and a relationship. In the song he’s clearly torn between ‘Nina’ and his career, so perhaps he felt she wasn’t a full-time lover because he was rarely around, and neither of them took their relationship seriously enough to merit more. As the song goes on it does become clear that he really cares, and I wouldn’t take that line too seriously. Ed’s known for being one of the nicest guys in music, and I find it hard to believe he’d openly condone infidelity, perhaps he just dropped it in to make the Stevie Wonder reference? It’s likely we’re looking into it too much, and I hope you give him a second chance, so to speak.
Thanks so much for your response to my comment. I’ve felt a strong connection to Ed since the first time I heard him sing. The more I found out about him, the more I liked him. He seems very family oriented too and, coincidentally, my parents are also deaf. I’d really like to accept what you’re saying about the “Part-time Lover” reference, but that song is ALL about cheating. So I have to take what Ed is saying at face value. It killed me when I realized that he was clearly ruminating on the idea of using Nina to cheat “in any other summer.” (If this would have been possible.) It seems like any other summer he was still with his hometown gf. (?) After viewing Nina’s “Just Before Goodbye” video this week, my heart goes out to her. Sad song. Not sure if this song is about her relationship with Ed, but with the part about the jeans and the hoodie, not being together half of the time, sounds plausible that this song is about Ed. Then again, she doesn’t say his name over and over again in her song. She does mention feeling led on and lied to. A couple more things about “Nina” scream bs to me. The part when Ed says to Nina, “I put my job over everything except my family and friends, but you’ll be in between forever.” And a few lines down, same verse, “I’m not saying we should be taking a break.” No, because they never had any future to begin with and he knew that all along, but she was convenient for him to come home to. For a while, however, in the chorus, he makes it clear, rather than, supposedly, being interested in “re-evaluating” the relationship, he prefers that she go. “Nina” sounds like a disaster to me. Don’t understand why he ever release it. What was he thinking? He wasn’t thinking. I wish Ed would Take It Back!
I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure ‘Nina’ is nothing to do with cheating. At no point in the song does he mention another woman, and I gather that the two share a relationship which falls somewhere between friends and more-than-friends, with the distance Ed’s career imposes swaying them more towards the former, which he clearly opts for – like you said with the chorus lines. I’d like to say that there’s nothing malicious or crude in the song outside of the ‘part-time lover’ line, and even then I don’t think he means it as derogatory. I’ve heard that the song’s about Nina Nesbitt, but I’m not sure about that either. I didn’t think Ed and Nina went back that far, and I don’t think they were ever in a relationship, but again I could well be wrong. I know the media speculated it, but neither confirmed it. That’s just my take on it, but I suppose nobody really knows the context except for Ed, and potentially his co-writers. Apologies if any of that came across as rude, but I think you might be hearing it wrong. Thanks for your thoughts anyway, it’s interesting to see how others interpret a song, and I do see where you’re coming from – I’m just not overly convinced it’s the right angle.