If the first record felt like a bright debut from a promising new voice, then this very much feels like the spectacular summer blockbuster fuelled by all the trappings and freedoms offered by success.
Adorned by strikingly impeccable production, the mathematical album name stream continues apace in ‘x’ (to be read as ‘multiply’); so too does the hybrid folk/rap overtures of the Sheeran sound. If there is a disjointed feel in the lyrics, with an artist relaying both the mundane everyday with the very specific pains of a successful music artist on the global touring circuit, then it is also not shy in being unashamedly laden with catchy hooks.
Aided by the aforementioned production, which has been commandeered by a team of heavyweights including Pharrell Williams (smash single ‘Sing’ and ‘Runaway’) and Rick Rubin (‘Don’t’, ‘Bloodstream’ and ‘Tenerife Sea’), surprisingly, Sheeran has managed to capture lightning in a bottle for the second time. In fact, it stakes a bold case for being a stronger effort than mammoth-selling ‘+’.
This time around the RnB influence to his song writing is louder, prouder and more overt; garnering smidges of pastiche (for example, ‘Don’t’ veers dangerously close to Blackstreet’s 90s anthem ‘No Diggity’), but more than anything, pulsating grooves. The record opens with the quiet and slightly muted ‘One’; an impassioned acoustic campfire serenade that seems to spill longing and heartbreak at its centre. In a way, this is a red herring for what follows, and even so, this is not as vulnerable as his Hobbit soundtrack piece, ‘I See Fire’.
As the record plays its varied and kaleidoscopic panoply of influences, there are successes aplenty. Those looking for scruffy edges will be disappointed, as underneath the surface differences, this shares a demand for mainstream acceptance in much the same way as a Coldplay record.
If there is fault to be found, then it can be levied at a rapping style that is becoming a little notable for its one-dimensional execution. Also, although he holds it proud as his favourite on the record, the vocal gymnastics of ‘Thinking Out Loud’ grates a little in its earnestness. He can’t quite swim in the Paolo Nutini waters for blue-eyed soul.
As things stand, it is surprising that the record holds together as it does. The number of different eyes that have overseen production duties on this record may have stifled continuity a little, but this is indicative of a particularly modern compromise.
For those who think that the album is dead, no, this is not quite the case. The album is definitely taking an evolution. As Sheeran propounds with his latest release, people want the long player in this day and age, but they want it to play like a bunch of singles. Think of a compilation record rather than a Dark Side of the Moon. Perhaps this is in line with the great 60s singles bands, like the Kinks, but even they had their Village Green Preservation Society.
With that reality comes the good and the bad; gone are the excesses of self-indulgence, but, sadly, so are the long, dark voyages into an artist’s soul. True, those albums are still being made, but they’re pushed to the periphery more now than they have been at any time since the 50s.
Whilst some of us may shed a tear for a world gone by, musician’s like Ed Sheeran will dust themselves down, adapt, evolve and collect the lucrative spoils.
On this evidence, he is the leader of that particular pack and this is an expectation-defying leap in the direction of festival headliner status. He has the chops and, most importantly, he has the tunes.