There’s no doubt the fiery, but unassuming underground artist Ed Sheeran is no more. After an incredible rise to fame over the past three years, can the now 23-year-old singer-songwriter’s second album keep both old and new fans happy?
I remember when Snow Patrol’s third album was on the horizon. The band had been through a rough time, but fans still held them dear. ‘Starfighter Pilot’ had been an indie anthem for years, and their second album was widely acclaimed, despite selling poorly.
So when Steve Lamacq first played new single ‘Spitting Games’, us Evening Session listeners immediately pricked up our ears. Even better, days later he introduced us to soaring slow-burner ‘Run’ and the band immediately became one to love again. Except, of course, that wasn’t the end. Soon your girlfriend loved them too. Then Jean from Accounts was a fan. And then, worst of all, your mum.
Before long Snow Patrol had lost their cool. No longer the plucky indie underdogs come good, soon they were one of the biggest bands in the country, known solely for their ballads. It was ‘Run’ and ‘Chasing Cars’ being played in every school-run Ford Focus, not ‘Starfighter Pilot’.
But it’s interesting isn’t it – should a band’s audience effect how you perceive the music? Few bands achieve mainstream success and retain their original credibility. Elbow embraced ‘A Day Like This’ and thrived from it; Coldplay ran with their popularity and just about retained the respect of their original fans. But many others have equally failed.
So what for Ed Sheeran? An artist who once adored the underground support for him; who rose up slowly through the ranks, playing hundreds of gigs a year in every hole around town with just him, a guitar and a loop pedal. He wore his folk and reggae roots firmly on his sleeves and could name cohorts such as Wiley, Devlin and Sway.
And then it all changed. He released ‘The A Team’ – a bleak song depicting the life of a crack-addicted prostitute – which a million teenage girls and their mothers mistook for a soppy ballad. Within months he’s the hottest property around and touring with, amongst others, Snow Patrol.
Debut album ‘+’ sold hugely but was received with luke-warm praise by most. A ballad-heavy affair, it was overly-produced compared to Sheeran’s previous work and contradicted a projected ethos built up over the years. Soon collaborations with Pop giants and blockbuster movie soundtracks followed and his underground days seemed a distant memory.
All this leaves Sheeran in a precarious place for his second full record, ‘x’. With two distinct sets of fans it’s never going to be easy to please everyone. For sure, the people lauding his live break-downs into ‘Red’ by Laid Blak won’t be after another ‘Small Bump’. His answer, largely, is the same as the first album – to simply mix the two together.
there won’t be many mums swaying to the bleak and panicky, ecstasy-based ‘Bloodstream’
There are two huge stand-out ballads, the first ironically co-written with Snow Patrol’s Johnny McDaid. The song, ‘Photograph’, has already been named by Sheeran as the song that could change his career. It’s Snow Patrol-by-numbers – a brooding, anthemic ballad and works perfectly with Sheeran’s gentle vocals. However, it’s the second, ‘Thinking Out Loud’ a bluesier, lighters aloft, gentle sway of a song, that will probably be his most influential – destined for bridal entrances and first dances forever with it’s “And, darling I / will be loving you / ’til we’re 70” line.
X’s contrast to that is stark. ‘The Man’ sees Sheeran ranting over a drum-beat a la Mike Skinner, intertwined with its dark “I don’t love you baby” chorus. Similarly, there won’t be many mums swaying to the bleak and panicky, ecstasy-based ‘Bloodstream’.
The album’s best moment though is probably ‘Don’t’, the one song that finds the middle-ground. A rap-driven ‘No Diggity’ style romp in the mode of his earlier work sees Sheeran slating a cheating ex. “Don’t fuck with my love”, he exclaims in the chorus over a deliberately poppy melody. It’s only a shame his record company stopped him releasing it as the first single on the album.
That privilege was reserved for the Timberlake-inspired ‘Sing’, co-written with man of the moment Pharrell Williams. Sheeran’s most pop-heavy hit to date, it’s seen him smash the USA and his fame grow to even further heights. Luckily it falls just the right side of parody, although will do nothing to enhance his street cred, echoing more Robin Thicke than some of his more serious influences.
It would be easy to criticise Sheeran for an incoherent album, which at times doesn’t even feel like the same artist throughout. But in an age full of generic reality-show karaoke singers and Auto-Tuned idiots, you could argue that he should actually be praised for trying something different. Don’t get me wrong, nobody is going to look back and think this was his ‘Kid-A’ moment, but at least he’s not sold his soul quite yet.