Ed Sheeran has been another Brit phenomenon, like his counterparts Adele and One Direction, but for many different reasons than the two other artists. His first album, + saw his folksy R&B meshed with a bit of rapping and hip-hop flavor, on a very grassroots level. The album was produced by him and regular collaborator Jake Gosling, as well as No I.D. Three years of touring, writing, recording, and destructive relationships created much of what we hear on his much anticipated follow-up, X.
The main difference between the two is production value. Compared to the first record, X is leaps and bounds past where that one was, with production by superstar and industry veterans Pharrel Williams and Rick Rubin (Adele, Black Sabbath, Eminem). + showcased a lot of slower, intimate tracks over Sheeran’s simple guitar playing, and while that’s what he’s great at, there were only a few cuts with his hip-hop flow and rap stylings. Those, of course, were the ones fans gravitated towards the most. So it’s natural for this second album to be a blend of both styles, only a bit more split down the middle. What results from the addition of the impressive list of producers is a much more catchy, pop-driven record. But unlike much of what we heard on the radio in public, it’s actually good music.
X explores relationships, both good and destructive, some more destructive than others. Possibly the most infectious track on the album, “Don’t” features a solid guitar beat and Sheeran’s signature vocals mixed with quick-witted rapping, describing a relationship that started out with a simple friends with benefits, leading to something real, and ultimately ending in betrayal. The simple chorus warns, “Don’t **** with my love”, but it’s worth noting that you can’t buy a copy of the song with it unedited. It’s possible the songwriter was on the borderline of getting a parental advisory sticker, therefore most (if not all) severe curse words are edited. Obviously a recording company ploy to sell more records. Nonetheless, it’s a brash, unadulterated look at where a relationship can take you. Other infectious tracks include the follow-up “Nina”, a begging from Sheeran to keep a girl away. “Bloodstream” is another catchy cut, and the brash feel comes back on “The Man”, finding the songwriter playing word vomit, realizing at the end of what he’s been gushing about, and finding out he still loves her, but it will never amount to anything again.
A jazzy, soulful number like “Thinking Out Loud” stands out for the pure nostaglic feel of it, and the fact that it’s unlike most of the rest of the record, and unlike anything from + as well. It sounds like Jason Mraz might have helped out with this one, even if he’s not listed on writing or production. It’s a very retro-styled track, and gives Sheeran another dimension he didn’t have before. Lastly, a love song like “Photograph” really reminds listeners of the simplicity of +, with a bit more theatrics than before. While I might not have expected to enjoy this new album from Sheeran, the production and guidance from industry titans is what keeps me coming back. Rubin and Williams really know what they’re doing, and they’re putting their signature on a young artist like Sheeran in such a way that will keep fans coming back for more, year after year. X is 2014's 21, even if it might not sell nearly the same amount of copies. The music is what matters, and these are great songs.