Ed Sheeran is hard not to like. He’s charming and effectual, and his music is cheerful and upbeat. Heartbreak and unrequited love have rarely sound so ebullient. Through relentless performing, a series of well-received EP releases and a solo LP— 2011’s +, which yielded the Grammy-nominated single “The A Team” — the UK-bred singer/songwriter spent the early part of his career earning his dedicated fan base bit by bit. Two years ago, he advanced to boardwalk at the hands of Taylor Swift, who tapped him to collaborate on her 2012 LP Red (“Everything Has Changed”), and open up for her on tour. They denied dating—few believed them—and a short-lived romance with Ellie Goulding followed. With his second LP x on deck, has celebrity changed the ginger singer with the heart of gold?
The answer to that question is—well, maybe a little bit. The stakes are higher now, and there’s a noticeable attentiveness to pleasing the general market. The LP’s Pharrell-produced first single, “Sing,” falters at the hands of its cliched crowd-baiting b-section and cheesy nu-disco guitar licks. Justin Timberlake, at his worst, wouldn't make a song this bad. Similarly, “Don’t," channels “No Diggity”-era Blackstreet sans the soulfulness of, uhhh, Blackstreet. Instead, Sheeran plays out a botched musician-on-musician romance, and while it's not quite bad, it doesn’t merit replay.
Where x really works is when its stripped to its bare essentials. Backed by just a spare guitar, Sheeran’s airy falsetto brings “One” to life, wistfully singing: “All my senses come to life/While I’m stumbling home as drunk as I/Have ever been, and I’ll never leave again/‘Cause you are the only one…” Another standout is “Photograph”; its brooding arrangement is an emotional roller coaster, letting the song’s unnamed subject know that things will forever be perfect in pictures. “Tenerife Sea,” rumored to be about the aforementioned Swift, finds its smarmy center at the heart of repeated refrain—“I’m so in love, so in love/ So in love, so in love.” Sometimes it’s the simplest phrases that work best.
And there are times when Sheeran can, in fact, successfully add to his palette. To that end, there’s “Runaway,” which finds him addressing daddy issues, a classic folk music trope. It's all light rock guitar licks and easily-repeatable choruses—pop music, basically—but enjoyable, which is the point. This is music for a mass audience, after all. There’s also “The Man,” where an angry Sheeran shows off his serviceable rap skills. As a rapper he's not quite Eminem status, but he's far better than Chief Keef, and the song’s heavy-handedness adds some heft to an otherwise inoffensive LP.
Despite his obvious attempts to please everyone without going full-on cheese a la Mumford and Sons or Pitbull, x finds Sheeran occasionally dabbling with different genres and coming up short. It’s when he doubles down on what he’s good at—strumming a guitar while singing folky tunes about love and despair—that he reminds us why we were charmed by him in the first place. It’s not a perfect LP, but x is certainly pretty damn good. —Paul Cantor