Ed Sheeran is a ginger Byron for the Millennial generation: he documents his alcohol-soaked misadventures in love with a dark vulnerability that seems to grasp that they are often doomed before they start. And yet, Sheeran goes back to dead-end road again and again looking for a different result, filled with optimism.
On “X,” his sophomore set and confident follow up to "+," the British singer/songwriter explores love—most often, but not always, the romantic kind—through a drunken lens. Armed with his acoustic guitar and with producers like Pharrell Williams and Rick Rubin by his side to round out his vision and often contemporize it, the 23-year old bares his soul. Even though the producers dress up some of this tunes, Sheeran is a troubadour, who’s more interested in telling a story than wrapping it in flashy sheen.
To his credit, though the songs are clearly autobiographical, Sheeran still addresses issues that are universal to anyone enlisted in love’s army. Even when he talks about what it’s like to be on the road and living the insane life of an artist, he remains relatable. And he lets us know that, even if the result isn’t always happy, he’s getting laid a lot…good on you, Ed!
Like his buddy, Taylor Swift, there’s a confessional tone to much of the material, some of it delivered in an endless flow that sounds as if he’s reading straight from a journal entry. Sheeran differs from Swift in that he has a more soulful bent to his voice, but we’ll see if the album’s release lead to a guessing game as to whom the songs are about.
A track-by-track review of “X.” Can we go ahead now and bet on whether the next album will be titled a subtraction mark or a division sign?
“One”: Alone with an acoustic guitar, Sheeran vows devotion to his love as he stumbles home “drunk as I’ve ever been.” She’s his only one even though she has other suitors. Singing in a tender falsetto, Sheeran makes “One” lovely, spare, and vulnerable. Grade: B
“I’m A Mess”: “See the flame inside my eyes,” Sheeran passionately sings as he begs someone to take a chance on him. He loses me a little on “put your faith in my stomach,” despite the snappy production. Grade: B-
“Sing”: “X’s” first single was an opening shot across the bow to let listeners know that Sheeran was shaking things up a bit. Yes, there’s the strummy acoustic guitar in the Pharrell Williams-produced track, but Sheeran raps over a snaky beat that rhapsodizes the joy of a drunken club pick up. Sheeran says the track, one of the songs of summer 2014, was influenced by Justin Timberlake: Grade: B+
“Don’t”: Sheeran’s tale about a fellow artist (rumored to be Ellie Goulding) who cheats on him. “I never saw him as a threat until you disappeared with him to have sex,” he sings in a breathless stream-of-consciousness on the toe-tapping, surprisingly lilting track produced by Rubin and Benny Blanco. Trifle with him at your own risk. Grade: B+
“Nina”: Co-written with Snow Patrol’s Johnny McDaid, “Nina” is another tale of being under the covers with a girl, smoking weed, and hanging out until it’s time he has to hit the road as he admits he puts his job before everything. His ramblings are set against a jazzy backdrop and an a cappella bridge that is more interesting than the subject matter. Grade: B-
“Photograph”: Also written with McDaid, “Photograph” is Sheeran at his most romantic as he describes memories of being kissed on “6th Street” as his lover whispers into the phone to wait for her. Grade: B-
“Bloodstream”: Sheeran’s imbibing in substances again, but this time it’s not to chase a high, it’s to chase away the pain of past sins. “This is how it ends/I feel the chemicals burn in my bloodstream/fading out begin/I feel the chemicals in my bloodstream/so tell me when it kicks in,” he sings in the devastating acoustic guitar-based ballad produced by Rubin that ends in layered vocals about “going down and down.” The album’s most striking track, it has a slight Snow Patrol feel— not surprising since Sheeran wrote it with Snow Patrol’s McDaid and Gary Lightbody. Grade: A-
“Tenerife Sea”: A straight-ahead, island-infused ballad that finds Sheeran unabashedly in love— open and embracing everything that love has to offer. About as uncynical as a love song gets. Grade: B-
“Runaway”: A finger-snapping, Pharrell-produced track bolstered by a shuffling beat, acoustic guitar and, like “Sing,” a Justin Timberlake influence. One of the album’s most infectious tracks. Grade: A-
“The Man”: A largely spoken track with a soulful, R&B chorus, “The Man” is Sheeran takes on another cheating girlfriend, but this time he takes much of the blame for her finding comfort in another’s arms. “Success is nothing if you have no one left there to share it with,” he says, as he questions his choices and how a life on the road is not conducive to real relationships. Grade: B
“Thinking Out Loud”: A sweet, retro-soul track about someone who will still love him even after the crowds are gone. As he sings “take me into your loving arms,” lightly serenaded by backing singers, he conjures up the spirits of Marvin Gaye and Dobie Gray. Grade: B+
“Afire Love”: Awash in strings and piano and a shaker, Sheeran addresses romantic love through the filter of a funeral as he begins a canticle about wishing that his family rise from their seats to sing “hallelujah.” It’s one of the album’s most ambitious tracks and sounds like nothing else on “X.” Grade: B+