Thursday, January 15, 2015

X - Ed Sheeran

I liked Ed Sheeran's first album a lot. He showed great promise, if not polish, as a songwriter and a confidence to do what he wanted. It's that confidence which has made him a star. He doesn't have the look or manner of a high profile pop star, but he owns it well enough to earn the freedom to do what he wants. This first shows up with the title to this new album - it looks like an x, but is pronounced Multiply. It fits the theme (the first one was a plus sign) and emerges as a more stable, honed performance.

However, the title should have been Division, because as much as Sheeran does what he wants, he doesn't seem quite sure what that is on this record. The album is clearly divided between the flowing, lyrical, love-infused singer-songwriter fare and a more upbeat, rhythm-driven, R&B-infused "above it all" vibe. He does both really well, but you sort of get the notion this album should have been a double, with one set of songs devoted to each, given proper space and separation. So that's what I'm going to do here.

The R&B stuff is pretty tight. Sheeran has Pharrell and Rick Rubin doing production on most of them and it's pretty clear. "Sing" shows off slick, layered production. Although it wasn't the best choice for debut single, this track does have more depth upon further reflection. It's a much better complementary piece than a lead. The second single, "Don't" keeps the vibe going, but unless he's trying to actively crossover from pop and get play on urban stations (which seems far-fetched at best), these songs don't really reflect either the quality of the album, or Sheeran's strengths as a writer and performer. The most valuable part of "Don't" is the mystery over whether this is Taylor Swift getting the Taylor Swift treatment from a male version of herself.

"Nina" combines the rapping, R&B tendencies, lyrics, and instrumentation well enough to present a fully-formed version of what he's clearly trying to put across. That "Nina" wasn't an early single must indicate some internal struggle between Sheeran and label about how to market this album. If you ask Sheeran what the best track on the album is, I suspect he'd pick "Bloodstream." It contains some of his deepest lyrics, a beat-driven vibe, production from Rubin, tender vocals, and depth of emotion. It's a Sheeran kind of song. I'm more partial to "Runaway," from the R&B side of the album. It seems odd, but Pharrell is able to infuse a sense of gravitas in the tracks he produces, which is especially important for someone like Sheeran, who's so naturally devoid of gravitas. Rubin is always precise with his expert balance of individual elements; Pharrell is a master of overall impression, mood.

When it comes to lyrics, Sheeran is quite creative albeit sometimes lacking in depth or insight. You don't see a lot of metaphor or poetry at play. I'm not generally a fan of rhyming for rhyming's sake, but Sheeran manages to pair his obvious rhymes with catchy rhythms well enough to please the ear. That being said, "The Man" is pretty fantastic (how many rappers wouldn't love to sing their own hooks?). Sheeran isn't going to threaten the reputation of any true MC, but he can write lyrics well enough (it's a little shaky in the third verse) to not be a joke (or as much of a joke as a tiny, Ginger British dude rapping will already be).

The other part of Multiply is Sheeran's ballady side, which is clearly his strong suit (even if it's less fun for him). "One" and "Photograph" are classic (unrequited or regretful, nostalgic) love songs infused with Sheeran's trademark blue-collar lyrics. There's much made of the "busker to big-league" narrative Sheeran's publicist has gotten around, but his success seems more about hard work and sheer talent than any rags to riches story. He can write and sing and he knows what he wants, even if he's not quite sure what he wants to be.

This isn't any more apparent than on the sparse, straightforward "I'm a Mess." Guitar and voice, with a driving rhythm reminiscent of those angsty early aughts John Mayer/Dashboard Confessional-type singer-songwriters that I imagine Sheeran always wanted to be. There's still enough polish on this track (and others) to make it real Grammy bait (which the voters seem to have taken).

"Afire Love" is a touching lyric with a great beat and a catchy chorus. It's clearly not about a girl or a night of drinking, which is refreshing, allowing Sheeran a rare chance to hang back and let his work speak for him. "The Devil took your breath away" will be this album's "crumbling like pastries" (although it's, thankfully, not in the chorus). It does make me wonder if Sheeran's independent, do-it-all-myself mentality keeps him from taking as many lyrical notes as might be appropriate.

"Tenerife Sea" is beautiful. Plain and simple. A simple, vivid depiction of the emotions surrounding being in love. Beautifully produced by Rubin, who always seems to know exactly what line needs a guitar cut-in or a short, simple harmony (if you want proof, listen to the album version after one of the many live performances available). It's easy listening in the best possible way.

"Thinking Out Loud," the third single (and the one currently getting major airplay) sounds so unlike Sheeran in almost every way. Still, it is probably the best track on the album. The lyrics are typical Sheeran, up-front and obvious, but with depth and feeling. The production is noticeable, but not distracting. His voice is unique and emotive and much more traditionally delivered. It's the only song on the album co-written with his original collaborator, Amy Wadge (Sheeran's original EP was titled Songs I Wrote with Amy). If this is a sign of what the guy is capable of, we may have some really, really good music in our future (perhaps on "Subtraction" or "%" or whatever he'll decide to call it).

When Taylor Swift won her Best Album Grammy, it was entirely on the back of potential. If the voters want to go that route again, Sam Smith surely has the highest ceiling, but the chances of him fully reaching his potential are dwarfed by Ed Sheeran. He's always known where he wants to be and proven a single-minded determination to get there. I don't know if his whims will take him where I'd like him to go, but if they do, he's almost sure to get there.

That being said, the album is bifurcated in strange ways. It's not a diversity of styles like we saw with Sara Bareilles last year, but simply one guy doing two things on the same album. They're both good in their own way, but I don't know too many people who will latch on to both well enough to sell all the albums Multiply deserves. It seems almost like one of those albums desperately deserving of a nomination, but with no business winning.

P.S. - I can't help but comment on "I See Fire," the closing credits track from the final Hobbit movie, written, produced and performed by Sheeran (and included on the Deluxe edition of Multiply). It's the perfect song for the movie, capturing the emotion and imagery of the story perhaps better than the movie itself. I tend to like spare writing and recording. "I See Fire" is not a world-beating song or anything, but it's so well done. If Sheeran ever decides he doesn't want to be a pop star, he's got a lot of potential as a collaborator on projects like this.

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