Ed Sheeran - X
The biggest cliché in music has to be the “difficult second album”, right? Generally there are three options: exactly the same, a twist on the formula, or a daring departure which results in genius or toss. Maybe that’s the reason that Ed Sheeran always looks slightly stunned; making his way from penniless busker to multi-platinum selling artist, by way of “discovery” by Elton John, releasing the ubiquitous ‘The A Team’, and the clever ‘Lego House’ video, has made him one of the least likely success stories of recent years. If the pressure is real, he'll have felt it more than most.
Hearing lead single ‘Sing’ you might think that there’s a bit of a John Travolta/Nicholas Cage face swap going on between Ed and Justin Timberlake, the dance grooves and falsetto are more Justin than Justin himself. But that comes third on the tracklist, behind two more Sheeran-y efforts - ‘One’ and ‘I’m A Mess’, both riffing on relationships. And that's how it rolls, a mix of the old and new, swinging from the +-like acoustic pop of ‘Photograph’ and ‘Tenerife Sea’, to another Timberlake sound-a-like, ‘Runaway’. Some rapping - more Mike Skinner than Eminem on 'The Man' adds to the colour. Thematically it’s mostly about girls, but there’s a nod towards more serious issues, drinking mainly, and ‘Bloodstream’ alludes to stronger vices (“I feel the chemicals burn in my bloodstream”). Though x uses a broader palette it’s still very much an Ed Sheeran album. By multiplying his backroom team – adding producers de jour Pharrell Williams and Rick Rubin - and subtracting much of usual collaborator Jake Gosling – he’s chosen to bravely shake things up a little, without risking what was an inevitable number one position.