Sound — 7
Ed Sheeran started his musical career in 2008, but didn't release his first album, "+," until 2011. He had an amazing amount of success, having caught the attention of Jamie Foxx and Elton John. He ended up working with several other more established artists, including being featured on Taylor Swift's album, "Red." He's since made friends with some other prominent people, in a fairly genre-defying manner - naming Rick Rubin, the band Snow Patrol, Pharrell Williams and others amongst his friends and collaborators. The album "x" is just Sheeran's second full-length album, and the deluxe version has 16 tracks and clocks in at roughly 65 minutes. The Pharrell-produced track "Sing" was released as the first single from the album in April. "One" and "Don't" were released as singles later on through iTunes. The deluxe version of the album also contains the track "I See Fire," which was originally written for and included in the soundtrack of "Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug," though "I See Fire" hasn't been listed as an official single for the album "x," and is only on the deluxe version. Ed wrote almost all of the songs himself, with the exception of 5 songs which were written in collaboration with other parties.
According to legend, most of the songs on the album were initially recorded with just Ed Sheeran and his acoustic guitar, with him focusing on giving a good performance in the studio with a good mood for each of the songs he recorded. Much later the other instrumentation was added to the songs. The album opens up with the track "One," which is essentially stripped down and quiet compared to the rest of the album - basically this is just the acoustic guitar and vocals for the majority of the song. Even when the drums and keyboards come in, they are playing some fairly simplistic parts and used for the ambience of the track instead of muddying it up. The second track, "I'm a Mess," is a song about Sheeran's girlfriend while he was writing this song and is a very vocally driven track with some occasional percussive work on his guitar, as well as some muted strumming. The song builds up to a crescendo with backup vocals and hand-clapping and all that type of jazz. "Sing," which is the first and only single released on the album, was produced by Pharrell "Hit-maker" Williams which could be a positive or a negative, depending on your perspective. Theoretically, going once again into the mythology of Ed Sheeran, two tracks on this album (including "Sing") were produced by Pharrell Williams and were initially intended for a separate project with Pharrell, but at the last minute they were included on "x." In regards to Ed Sheeran's work with Pharrell he has stated he is striving to sound like Timberlake's debut release… which I can't really get behind, but the song in and of itself isn't bad. "Don't" (produced by Rick Rubin) is probably one of the most uncomfortable songs on the album to me, basically being about how Ed's "kind of" girlfriend slept with his friend. Honestly, though "Don't" is produced by Rick Rubin it sounds much more like hip-hop than anything else, with Ed's guitar work being drowned out by the "beat." "Nina" was co-written with Johnny McDaid (of Snow Patrol) and is another uncomfortable song, basically telling his girlfriend back home that he's not coming back for her. "Photograph" is another song co-written by Johnny McDaid and is a sad love song with piano and percussion drowning out the guitar. "Bloodstream" is another track produced by Rick Rubin, and personally is probably one of my favorite tracks from the album. It is a powerful track, with a powerful hook. "Tenerife Sea" was written at the 2013 Grammy's, which would probably mean the song is about Taylor Swift or Ellie Goulding as those are the two celebrity women who were present that he has been tied to via his work or rumors, etc. Which one has blue eyes? I can't bring myself to care quite enough to look it up. "Runaway" is another Pharrell Williams produced song, and you really can tell just from listening to it. It isn't a bad song, I think I'm just tired of hearing music with Pharrell's hands in it. "The Man" has already been compared by others to The Streets… but there is a reason for that - if I didn't know this was Ed Sheeran then I would assume it was new material from The Streets. The type of beat and the cadence of the rapping all sound like The Streets. "Thinking Out Loud" is a pretty hard left turn after "The Man," being very minimalistic and sweetly sung, with some serious "neo-soul" type of vibe going on with it. "Afire Love" is a song about Ed's grandfather's declining health and battle with Alzheimer's disease. Like a lot of the songs on the album, I get the impression that the songs would have more musical value if they were stripped down to simple acoustic guitar, bass and drums with the vocals without the keyboard and synths and extra instrumentation. "Take It Back" is almost completely rapped by Ed Sheeran, with only the choruses sang. This track grew on me, though. It probably is my second favorite track, and this is mostly because you have somebody rapping with only an acoustic guitar as their only accompaniment. "Shirtsleeves" is very neo-soul and hip-hop. "Even My Dad Does Sometimes" is a sad song which Ed co-wrote with Amy Wadge. The album closes out with "I See Fire," which we've all heard at this point, but honestly is a good song.
Lyrics — 7
Ed Sheeran is a pretty solid songwriter and vocalist - you can't find a lot of fault in what he does within the genre in which he does it. Mostly he provides some very melancholy and heartfelt delivery, but with some few lines rapped, or like the track "Take It Back" with full rapped verses. There are definitely a lot of moments with the vocals being rapped more than sung, and while Ed isn't "bad" at rapping, he doesn't really shine at it - it would have more impact as something he utilized very occasionally to add a tool to his arsenal as a vocalist instead of trying to make it a key part of what he's doing. As a sample of the vocals, here are some from the track "Tenerife Sea": "You look so wonderful in your dress/ I love your hair like that/ The way it falls on the side of your neck/ Down your shoulders and back/ We are surrounded by all of these lies/ And people who talk too much/ You've got that kind of look in your eyes/ As if no one knows anything but us/ And should this be the last thing I see/ I want you to know it's enough for me/ Cause all that you are is all that I'll ever need/ I'm so in love, so in love/ So in love, so in love." There are some songs with better lyrics, and some are worse, but mostly even on his more "pop" oriented songs, his lyrics seem honest and have my attention.
Overall Impression — 7
So, I have a hard time getting past the fact that Ed Sheeran kind of looks like a wilder and more elfin version of the comedian, Carrot Top. He seems to be flirting with a lot of genres in his music, which mostly works (somehow), and seems to be working with a diverse crowd of collaborators. At the end of the day he is a seriously good guitarist and when you strip down what he's doing to guitar and vocals, his songs stand up under that scrutiny. For the time being I have to give Ed Sheeran credit where it is due - he is an excellent singer/songwriter and he proves he's tapped into the muse. He is most obviously an excellent songwriter on some of his softer songs where he seems to drop the façade he seems to be wearing for this album. I'm still skeptical if he can keep this up for the long-term, because call me a pessimist but I can't feel completely positive towards somebody who is getting this amount of sudden attention in the media - I start to feel like he's a straw man being propped up to be the next "superstar." I can't help but think you could peel some of the layers from these songs and you would find something much better underneath them. I would love to hear Ed Sheeran working with more fundamental instrumentation and getting away from the producers and such who seem to be defining his sound for him sometimes… in effect ruining his art, which in its purest and best form seems to be acoustic guitar-driven ballads and folk-type songs.