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