“x” Marks the Spot
Fingers sliding across guitar strings and a simple note or two begin Ed Sheeran’s latest album, x, on the song “The One.” The regret-tinged love tune sets the tone for Sheeran’s tour de force. You see, in Sheeran’s latest album, he raps, sings in falsetto and gets you moving in your seat with tracks like “Sing” but, by and large, the material he covers centers on his struggle to maintain a romantic relationship while pursuing his dreams.
In the April 2013 Vanity Fair cover story, Taylor Swift addresses the double standard when it comes to writing songs that are often about love.
For a female to write about her feelings, and then be portrayed as some clingy, insane, desperate girlfriend in need of making you marry her and have kids with her, I think that’s taking something that potentially should be celebrated—a woman writing about her feelings in a confessional way—that’s taking it and turning it and twisting it into something that is frankly a little sexist.
Swift hit it on the head when she called it sexist. Case in point: Ed Sheeran. His songs are nearly solely devoted to love and his experience with it, and nobody remarks about his penchant for writing about his “feelings.” Don’t get me wrong, it’s clear that Sheeran appreciates women, when he writes lyrics like “You look so wonderful in your dress/ I love your hair like that/ The way it falls on the side of your neck/ Down your shoulders and back” in the lovey-dovey “Tenerife Sea.” But, overwhelmingly, he draws inspiration from his feelings, too.
Though the subject matter may be similar, x is a departure from his debut, +, in terms of influences and tones. Justin Timberlake and John Mayer, to name two well-known artists, are all over this record in spirit. And Sheeran owes a lot to hip hop, as he brings together folk-pop and rap on every other song. His chart-topping single “Sing” is right for the club, due to its dance-inducing rhythm and sway, yet features acoustic guitar strums all over the track. With this song alone, Sheeran has single-handedly transformed a genre.
And some may be surprised that Sheeran veers on the adult matters of sex, drugs and alcohol, but I’m not. The beginnings of these subjects were all over + and, though he may have toured with squeaky-clean Taylor Swift, that has no bearing whatsoever on his freedom to write about his reality.
For listeners who are familiar with +, “Take It Back” resonates as a new manifesto that picks up where “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You” left off. Ever aware of his unique physique, Sheeran begins the third verse with:
I take it back now
Now I don’t ever want to be perfect,
Cause I’m a singer that you
Never want to see shirtless
And I accept the fact that someone’s gotta win worst-dressed,
Taking my first steps into the scene,
Giving me focus
In his rap, he reminds us he’s still on the rise—and, judging by his quick ascent, he’s surely onto something. The second song on the album, “I’m a Mess,” features a repetitive swell as the outro, much like “Give Me Love” did on +. In my opinion, the rise and fall of these outros makes for successful, memorable and rhythmically clever songs.
For me, the first 13 songs are winners, but the final three could have been omitted. x is a long album, and Sheeran may have benefited from using the final tracks as bonus ones, rather than cobbling them in with the rest of the very strong, very incisive songs that precede them.
All in all, x is definitely a success for Sheeran. Recently, Taylor Swift encouraged her followers to buy Sheeran’s new album with a photo of him snuggling with her cat, Meredith, on Instagram. Swift exposed the softer side of Sheeran with that post, but it’s something any listener of x will also witness through his poignant songs.