I have to confess I’m late to the Ed Sheeran bandwagon. I sort of liked “The A Team” when it came out as a single, but I could never quite get into most of Sheeran’s other songs. I could recognize why it was good, but it never quite gelled for me. Now, though, I’m starting to appreciate his more mature work–funny thing to say for someone who’s only 26!–more and more, which has caused me to go back and revisit, or rather, visit for the first time, this album. This time I can appreciate its brilliance, while also understanding why it didn’t quite work for me the first time around.
Of course, as a performer, Sheeran needs to be judged at least as much on his live performances as his studio albums, and, while I haven’t seen him in person, the recordings I’ve seen of his live performances show him to be a gifted and charismatic performer (here he is performing “Shape of You”, and here’s a concert in Dublin), with a voice that often sounds even better with the rawness of live singing than when cleaned up for the studio.
As an artist and songwriter, Sheeran pulls together multiple trends in contemporary Anglo-Irish music, and isn’t afraid to cross the pond to America either. His working-class Britrap, full of stories of day-to-day desperation and low-level drug use, is in many ways reminiscent of that of Mike Skinner/The Streets (fabulous albums here:Original Pirate Material, Grand Don’t Come For Free, A)
but with less cynicism and more genuine pathos: Skinner’s lyrical personae are generally too angry and dysfunctional to achieve anything other than more failure; Sheeran’s songs feature a younger, more vulnerable persona who isn’t afraid to daydream about being a father in “Small Bump,” for example, and whose devastation can be inferred by the implied tragic ending of the last line. Sheeran takes the energy and honesty of the rap genre, and suffuses it with his own soulful intimacy, something that can be in turns either refreshing or jarring.
But while Sheeran has one foot in the rap world, he has another foot firmly planted in Anglo-Irish folk rock, something he makes explicit by including the Scotch-Irish ballad “The Parting Glass” at the end “Give Me Love.” This places him in the same general camp as Ben Howard, Damien Rice (whom he name-checks in “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You”), and Snow Patrol, who have taken a more folk/country turn in their last album Fallen Empires
and with whom Sheeran toured and performed. At the same time, Sheeran is of a slightly younger generation and brings in more explicitly pop-y influences, not to mention collaborations with Taylor Swift. Like Swift, Sheeran isn’t afraid of the insanely catchy pop hook; like Rice and Snow Patrol, he isn’t afraid to venture into almost embarrassingly naked emotional territory.
The result of all this is an album exploding at the seams with genre experimentation, musical talent, and personal revelations. I once wrote in a review of Snow Patrol that listening to their lyrics was like reading my own secret diary set to verse; listening to Sheeran’s songs is like hearing someone else’s secret diary being sung, rapped, and poured out in an unstoppable torrent of emotional intensity and musical talent. For me, the first impulse was to turn down the tap to something a little more manageable. After multiple listens, however, I was able to deal with the fire-hose volume of Sheeran’s musical and lyrical output, and I am coming around to the conclusion that + is not only an impressive debut, but one of the best albums of the past 5 years.
Want your own copy? It’s available on iTunes, or through Amazon here: + (Bonus Tracks)
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