There is a brilliant message buried in X. It shouldn’t be too hard to unearth. All you have to do is listen to “Tenerife Sea” after remembering Sheeran brags about how girls ask him to fuck in “Don’t”. There are women who are certain all British men are hot guys in suits, that they’re very romantic, nice and will never break your heart. Ed Sheeran is that hot guy, only he’s aware that the image of a romantic man can be another way to have sex with as much women as possible.
Or maybe there is no message. Maybe Ed Sheeran believes his own bullshit.
Kid Rock also believes his own bullshit, but it took him some time to start. That’s also about the time he lost it. Before that, he tried really hard to convince himself he’s a brilliant musician. He did that by drawing from various American music styles – the loud guitars, the aggressive rapping, the country twang and figuring out why these tropes work. Kid Rock never sounded genuine on “Picture” but it didn’t sound like he tried. His inspiration for that ballad was not heartbreak but other ballads, but he listened to enough to make it work.
Ed Sheeran is like the British version of Kid Rock, with acoustic guitars instead of distortion and a Unthreatening Nice Guy image instead of redneck-ness. There must be a way to connect bragging tracks with acoustic ballads about love. The underrated Everlast made a career of this and Jason Mraz also had a brief time in the limelight.
Everlast and Mraz had a more focused image, though. Everlast’s ballads weren’t meant to sound like a Nice Guy. They were meant to sound like the chink in the macho man’s armor. Jason Mraz was always an average dude. Ed Sheeran, in one has a lot of sex and in the other is a hopeless romantic.
This isn’t the result of expressing a wide range of emotions. Sheeran sounds comfortable in “Sing” and “Don’t”. After all, he’s a famous singer so he must have first-hang accounts of girls asking him upstairs. The problem is that he brings this sexual confidence to his ballads.
Love songs that come from a place of sexual confidence sound either insincere, or pointless. If you’re so confident in your ability at wooing, why are aiming for catharsis? The best love songs are those where the singer sounds like he has to get it off his chest. On Zombies’ “This Will Be Our Year”, the singer sounds like he’s exploding from happiness. On Cure’s “Lovesong”, Smith sounds like he will fall apart if the woman in question won’t marry him.
Sheeran doesn’t sound happy, sad, confused or any emotion that can lift a love song. He sounds like he’s trying to pick up girls. The songs sound no different than any song where a rapper waves his dollar bills and offers expensive drinks for sex. The difference between Sheeran and TI is that Sheeran sounds like he’s trying to have one night stands with girls who are dying for romance. TI knows his girls just want a sugar daddy.
This isn’t an image that exists outside of the record. Every artist creates an image inside the record that helps connect the songs and bring personality. Some play the same character on every album – Dave Wyndorf is a sexy nerd pretty much all the time. Some change – Marilyn Manson went from being Antichrist Superstar to an old man. If “One” and “I’m a Mess” were sincere enough, they could stand sitting next to “Sing”. “Picture” could stand next to a song about how we never meet a motherfucker quite like Kid Rock because Kid tried really, really hard to sound vulnerable.
It may be the set up of just guitar and vocals, which meant to sound intimate but isn’t. It can’t even count as a rip-off of Nick Drake, because any Nick Drake rip-off would sound a little more sincere. On “Photograph”, he rips off the lyrics of Incubus “Love Hurts” and doesn’t even bother to add anything. On “Thinking Out Loud”, he asks the woman if she will remember the taste of his love. Facebook news feeds moved on, but Sheeran is still stuck somewhere in time. I can’t even remember a time these lines meant something.
He’s a little better in the other tracks. There are good hooks in “Sing”, “Don’t” and “Runaway”. They would’ve worked much better in different hands. The toughness in “Don’t” would’ve added a lot to Jason Mraz. Everlast would’ve dealt with the alcoholism in “Runaway” much better.
“Afire Love” is the track that best sums up the record, the good and the bad. Sheeran is at once convincing, but reveals how weak a songwriter he is. The subject of Alzheimer’s is pretty touching, and the melody is beautiful. The lyrics are so anticlimatic, though. The first verse is just a dull chronicle of how a person started losing his memory and that it made people feel bad, with a mentions of the devil and heaven which add nothing to the tone. Imagine how beautiful the song could be if Patterson Hood or Frank Turner – lyricists whose whole point is intimacy – handled them. Look at the song title. Such a serious subject deserves a song that’s not titled like another cheap love song.
Maroon 5 are another apt comparison, but they handled their fame better. They were into love songs for the sake of singing love songs, so even with their new sexual confidence their love songs weren’t obnoxious. Ed Sheeran never, for one moment, sound sincere. He’s full of confidence and arrogance but sings of weakness. Imagine if Snoop Dogg sang Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”. It’s not a clever contrast. Sheeran doesn’t play with these personalities, so they end up working against each other.At best, it’s decent pop but until he does something with his image it’ll be a glass ceiling. Even the best tracks sound weaker because they’re performed by him.
2 cups of ginger ales out of 5