Album Review: "x" Ed Sheeran

From the start, Ed Sheeran has demonstrated a skill for shrugging off the conventions of mainstream pop while still managing to enjoy its successes: His breakthrough radio single focused on a crack-addled prostitute. "The A Team," from Sheeran's debut album, "+" (pronounced "plus"), cloaked its harrowing subject matter in a sensual melody, a nifty trick that has helped the 23-year-old British singer-songwriter transition from pub-playing troubadour to arena act in roughly three years. The accented yearn of his vocal delivery distinguishes him from other aspiring folkies, but Sheeran's real gift lies in his writing - his lyrics' attention to detail and unorthodox phrasing in particular. As the title implies, "x" (pronounced "multiply"), Sheeran's highly anticipated follow-up, ups the ante from his debut. He sinks even deeper into feelings of love, jealousy and inebriation while trying to navigate pop superstardom - a problem this album is sure to only amplify.

To that end, "x" looks like a smash. Every song synthesizes the catchiest qualities of "The A Team" and its follow-up hit, "Lego House." "Bloodstream" flaunts a soulful naiveté over the most delicious guitar lick on the album, while "I'm a Mess" builds into an anthemic ending that will surely cap off Sheeran's future live show. As the hooks intensify, Sheeran paradoxically spends much of the album trying to hide - from the bright lights that make his eyes squint with intoxicated confusion, but also from unnamed women who endlessly frustrate him. There's a reason Sheeran name-checks two Bon Iver songs on separate tracks; throughout the album, he attempts to spin his heartbreaks into an empathetic cry for shambling twentysomethings. "Loving can hurt sometimes/But it's the only thing that I know," he concludes on "Photograph," which lets its careful piano keys and acoustic strums simmer until arena-size drums kick in.

The daring spirit at the heart of Sheeran's appeal is magnified here, and he outclasses other rising male singers simply by utilizing a deeper bag of tricks. Few artists could pull off as stark a transition as the leap between "Sing," a swaggering, Justin Timberlake-inspired dance track, and "Don't," a blue-eyed-soul hymn built around the line "Don't fuck with my love." Elsewhere, Sheeran raps like The Streets' Mike Skinner on "The Man" and crafts a new-school wedding jam with "Tenerlife Sea." Such wild swiveling never feels forced, or even unexpected, from Sheeran, who has proven his exacting musicality onstage. Then, he uses chopped-up loops, but few ideas get repeated on x.

Sheeran seldom lets his songs breathe, packing each second with syllables even when he's not spitting bars. But that overeagerness will likely be tamped down, as Sheeran continues to polish his impressive craft. "x" finds a hungry artist doing everything possible to elevate to another level, simply by abiding by his instincts. After arriving on the U.S. pop scene with an offbeat folk ballad, Sheeran is expanding his profile on his own terms. 


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