It's a story as old as Bob Dylan: a guitar-toting young troubadour heads to the city, gets a deal, hits it big and then goes electric. In 2014, his name is Ed Sheeran, he's 23 and from a coastal town two hours from London. His new record, "x," arrives on the heels of his Grammy-winning folk-pop hit "The A-Team." It's crammed with hits and will make him a star.
FOR THE RECORD:
Ed Sheeran: In the June 24 Calendar section, a review of Ed Sheeran's new album "x" (Multiply) referred to Sheeran's song "The A Team" as Grammy-winning. The song was nominated for song of the year, but it did not win. —
On "x" (which reads as "Multiply"), the charismatic young redhead aims for pop ubiquity after years working the acoustic guitar and perfecting a clever mix of busker-style storytelling and rap-inflected rhyming. He's teamed with one of the most successful pop producers of the last 15 years, Pharrell Williams, the "Happy" hit maker and co-producer of such pop classics as Britney Spears' "I'm a Slave 4 U" and Snoop Dogg's "Drop It Like It's Hot." Sheeran isn't hiding his aspirations, and in Williams he's found his Rick Rubin.
The dozen songs on "x" carry his devoted listenership through a whirlwind few years that saw him touring the world with pal/collaborator Taylor Swift and perfecting the art of building beat-based songs live onstage using a guitar, sampler, foot-pedal and inventive layers of loops.
Extremely personable in front of big crowds, Sheeran's the same charmer on "x": more than willing to express deep emotions, but not through whiny emo-rock poetics but with a working-class chattiness and the sing-song raps of a bloke sharing yarns over some pints.
Sheeran's a promising writer, even if he hasn't fully determined what separates tepid from vivid metaphor. For every Dylan and Beck Hansen rolling down highways in private buses are a dozen Everlast and G Love would-bes getting splashed in their wake. At his most unconvincing, Sheeran cuts it close. Flames burn bright inside his eyes on the strum-happy confession "I'm a Mess," signifying, as always, confused desire. In asking forgiveness on the otherwise lovely ballad "Bloodstream," he sings of "scars upon a broke-hearted lover." "Tenerife Sea" is a love song in the vein of Eric Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight" and Ginuwine's "In Those Jeans."
Still, Sheeran's able to tweeze exquisite moments and place them sparkly and vivid into the crown of a song. On "Photograph," he gives a snapshot to a lover and sings, "You can keep me inside the pocket of your ripped jeans," then "inside the necklace you got when you were 16." The playful "Nina" isn't very well rapped — he's certainly no Eminem — but woven amid a piano and guitar dance pop song, it sure is catchy. That's "x" writ large. Well-crafted, generous and willing to lay it on thick when necessary, but fun to be around nonetheless.