Ed Sheeran Adds and Multiplies
by Stephen Warren
After Ed Sheeran's debut album + in 2011, it was not difficult to argue he should be nicknamed the "British Jason Mraz.” With simple arrangements supporting beautiful acoustic guitar work and effortless vocals—mixed with a few upbeat tongue twisters—he had shown he had the songwriting and vocal chops to be a successful pop musician. He all but solidified this by opening for Taylor Swift on her Red Tour last year.
The first impression of + was that it was a nice acoustic album. You hear the nuances of the songs. Sheeran makes up for debut-album-type production values by filling his voice with as much emotion as possible, then layering some gorgeous harmonies over the top to complement it. The lyrics, while a bit dopey at times ("on cold days, the cold plays like the band's name”), were sweet and genuine. Plus, he could get away with a few dumb lyrics because of how effortlessly he sings them. The chord progressions are simple, sometimes predictable. But, isn't all pop music supposed to be? Overall, his charm pulls all of his talent together to make a very good debut album.
Because of this, one might be worried about Ed Sheeran's sophomore album X (pronounced "multiply”) after listening to the first single "Sing” the first time. With more electronic instruments, a drum machine, and two chords repeated for almost four minutes, there could be a fear that he's replaced the sweetness of his first album with higher, poppy-er production values in the hope of becoming a star.
But a closer comparison between his new single and + shows that "Sing” might actually be the same old Ed.
On +, Sheeran did have full arrangements on almost every song. Some could even be considered electronic music. While mostly the weaker of the songs, the upbeat songs still worked because Sheeran was able to show off his near-rapping ability. Where his more acoustic songs were a chance to show his softer side, the upbeat songs gave him a chance to be cocky. The best example of this is in "You Need Me, I Don't Need You,” when he brags:
"Don't need another wordsmith to make my tunes sell / Call yourself a single writer; you're just bluffing / Name's on the credits, and you didn't write nothing.”
That sums up why he's great: a great artist who actually writes his own songs. What an idea.
Musically, it would be a sin to call + an acoustic album. It has nicely balanced electronica, and acoustic and electric guitar bits that add nice subtleties to an overall feeling. + is only an acoustic CD in that every song would sound incredible with just Ed Sheeran's voice and an acoustic guitar. As demonstrated here.
His best fully arranged songs on the debut are the slower tracks, because they feel soothing. It feels like there's a beach with waves crashing in slow motion nearby. The arrangements, while full, are subtle. And, subtlety works perfectly, since his vocals, which shine through, should be the real workhorse.
Keeping this in mind, listening to "Sing” gives off a different feel. It has all the elements of Sheeran: smooth vocals, nice wordplay, and an acoustic guitar. But this song actually has something the older ones don't. While + had great emotion, "Sing” has some soul to it. This song feels similar to his upbeat electronic songs from the first album. But, by adding a choir of voices to support the chorus and having a happier melody, Sheeran has made an upbeat song that makes you want to dance.
The second song Sheeran released from X (he is releasing a new song every Saturday until the album is released on June 23 rd ) is called "Don't” and is as upbeat as "Sing.” This one is a bit edgier than his other mumble-rap-verse songs. It's another song about relationships, but has the same swagger as "You Need Me, I Don't Need You,” which is a nice change from his usually mushy love songs. It's a nice tune and sounds like his electronica stuff, but with real instruments. Apparently, that's all the songs needed to have soul: a real person behind it. Who would have thought? While a bit repetitive, the real focus is on the lyrical melody, which makes the song what it is. "Don't” showcases how good Sheeran's wordplay can be
If you're still worried that Ed Sheeran has graduated to making simply pop songs, listen to "One” the third song he released (I guess he's getting the single-word titles out early). This feels as bare and emotional as "Small Bump” or "A-Team” from +, which is missing in the first two songs. Based on this song, his sweetness is not going anywhere. The other concern is that he's relying too much on his falsetto now. But listen from about 2:30 of this song. That long falsetto note is incredible. More of that please.
So, if there was any doubt that Sheeran was going in the wrong direction from a single listen to "Sing,” give it another try. Ed Sheeran knows what he's doing. It may not be a soft acoustic song that will make you tear up when no one's looking, but it may have just the right amount of life to it (without getting too annoying too quickly) to make you dance when no one's looking, like any good summer hit should. And oh by the way, the album comes out two days after summer starts. What a coincidence! With that timing, if Ed Sheeran can keep that great beach soul in this music while adding real instruments to really express the soul, X could be the album of the summer, if not the year.