Am I the only one who heard Ed Sheeran’s “Sing” on the radio for the first time and thought it was just pandering to get on the charts? Or is Pharrell really the goose who lays the golden eggs these days?
Yeah, I was perhaps one of the few who was actually disappointed with the lead single from Ed Sheeran’s sophomore album x—not because “Sing” isn’t catchy or danceable (Pharrell did produce it, after all, and he does know how to crank out the hits), but because I believe said production was completely unnecessary.
If there’s anything the past three years have proven, it’s that Ed Sheeran doesn’t need tight drum loops or hip-hop infused dance-pop production to fill his place on the world stage. All he really needs is a guitar and that warbly falsetto voice of his. Case in point: “The A Team.” That single went around the world and sold like a bajillion copies, without any sort of dance/R&B type production, easily placing the red-headed twenty-something singer songwriter into a niche role as a world troubadour. We grew to love Ed Sheeran for his vulnerable vocals, his lyrical witticism, and most of all, for the fact that he was different than all the rest.
Enter x (pronounced “Multiply,” patterned after his debut album +, pronounced “Plus”). To be clear, this isn’t a complete fiasco. Most of what first endeared us to Ed Sheeran is still present on this record: innovative, emotive lyrics (largely dealing with love, lust and booze in this case), masterful guitar work, and the signature falsettos. Opening tracks “One” and “I’m a Mess” easily point the compass in the same direction as +, adding the maturity of experience.
Then comes the left turn into WTF.
No doubt “Sing” is an instant hit, so if that was the plan, the plan succeeded. If this had been the Ed Sheeran we’d started with, nobody would raise an eyebrow. But this is NOT the Ed Sheeran we started with, and it doesn’t fit him at all. It’d be a great song with just a guitar and a bit of drum, and thankfully the album version does bring the guitar out in the mix more than the instantly regrettable Top-40 radio dance version. But really, guys? Did we really need a Pharrell track on an Ed Sheeran record? Can he not handle it in his own way?
It gets worse. The next two tracks, “Don’t” and “Nina,” are again well-written and well-executed songs that could easily do without the R&B/dance production behind them. After that, the record rights itself somewhat with several ballads more in line with Sheeran’s signature style, and with gems like “Photograph” and “Tenerife Sea” embedded there in the middle, the album redeems itself in part. Even the groove-R&B of “Runaway” passes mettle, even with the uber-polished production, because Sheeran’s vocal inflections fit it so well—and in fact, this is the only place in the record at which the blend of urban with folk-pop makes any sense at all.
Just when you think you’re over the worst of it, then comes the final faux pas, in which Sheeran makes an utterly embarrassing attempt at rap with “The Man” (please, Ed Sheeran, don’t EVER do this again), before finally ending with an endearing love song “Thinking Out Loud.” Even though he seems to channel Bruno Mars at particular moments, this closing song gives us hope that maybe Sheeran hasn’t completely lost himself.
No doubt I’ll catch some flak from die-hard Sheeran fans who feel he can do no wrong—and I’ll readily admit that these missteps aren’t going to hurt his sales at all (nor have they). I’m just saying from an artistic point of view, the overproduced R&B vibe attempted on x is completely unnecessary considering the type of artist Sheeran really is. It’ll play well on radio, but in reality, it’s gimmicky, it’s patronizing, and anyone who actually stops to think about what happened on this record won’t be able to walk away without feeling his/her intelligence has been insulted. Ed Sheeran would have sold just as well by just doing what he does, instead of clouding the mix with production tricks that were obviously designed to manipulate the market.