2014 has been an important year for Ed Sheeran, or at least it seems like it should have been.
Coming off of the success of his last album, “+” (read: Plus) and hit single/activist call “A-Team,” Sheeran decidedly seemed determined to do something different with “X” (read: Multiply).
With rumors of Pharrell joining him in the studio, fans closely anticipated any hint of new material. Two years later, “X” confirms a slightly new direction for Sheeran, albeit not as drastic of a change as some fans may be hoping.
Album opener “One” and the following song, “I’m a Mess,” are perfect examples of what to expect throughout the duration of “X.”
“One” closely follows the formula presented on “+,” while “I’m a Mess” aims to showcase Sheeran’s stylistic change – just not long enough to actually take notice. These songs are far from bad; they’re merely safe.
One of the biggest faults of “X” is how much its singles outshine the rest of the album. It’s become nearly impossible to escape the radio play of “Sing,” which feels as though it was built for every future sporting event of the next decade.
“Don’t” is an R&B/hip-hop soaked tale of love and substance turned sour and very well could compete with Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” and Bleachers’ “I Wanna Get Better” for song of the summer.
“Nina” continues in a similar vein, and thus concludes a memorable first third to Sheeran’s latest album. Unfortunately, it is this middle portion that will prove nearly impossible to write about, as it begins to blur and drag the album down where it needs support most.
Fortunately, Sheeran pulls it back together in the album’s final act, once again turning things up a notch with “Runaway” and career highlight, “The Man.”
The former is one of the only non-singles to foray further into Pharrell’s R&B influence, while the latter is a complete game changer – a near spoken word/hip-hop jam and letter to a former lover detailing Sheeran’s career getting in the way of his personal life.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time writing about the album’s faults, but only because of how high Sheeran set the bar with its promotion; hearing a song like “Don’t” compared to, say, “Photograph” finds the difference in quality incredibly troubling.
Despite the three-song lag that starts with “Photograph,” “X” has plenty of high points for fans and newcomers alike. Sheeran’s vocals have never sounded better, often throwing back to a “Justified”-era Justin Timberlake. His songwriting has also improved; “X” finds Sheeran pushing the boundaries of a typical folk-pop singer, and he almost succeeds entirely. Just look at the album’s gorgeous closer, “Afire Love.” For now, “X” remains a good album that could have been great, but still provides hope for what Sheeran can produce on LP No. 3.