The sophomore album is never an easy thing to tackle. Artists have their whole lives to come up with songs for their debut albums. But when it comes to making the second album, well, you might find it difficult to feel inspired if all you’ve done for the past year is tour nonstop. For Ed Sheeran, his life since releasing his debut album, + , has been both a blessing and a curse, which is to say that he’s been unlucky in love, so unlucky that he’s been able to write brutally honest new songs exploring love from all angles.
It’s not every day you hear a guy who started out as a folk singer/songwriter doing pop, rap and R&B but Sheeran does all of these things on X and he makes it look easy. Take the lead single “Sing,” for example. It was a risk for him for two reasons. One, it was a pop song. Two, the middle of the song is rap. So, he risked fans and critics calling him a sellout. And maybe to some degree he did sell out; he worked with various producers on these songs and had a co-writer for several. So, one might suspect that he let others push him into different directions, perhaps directions that the record label wanted him to go. But it’s actually pretty unlikely that Sheeran sold out because it’s clear through his lyrics on X that he’s a very honest and inspired guy and a strong one at that. He’s endured some very bad heartache. Women have used and abused him and it sucks. But he soldiers on, documenting the events in his songs, probably as a means of getting the last word. And most of the songs on X are just bursting with creativity. If he was just doing a song like “Sing” to please his record label then he would’ve just been going through the motions, but it’s clear that he loves that song when you hear him singing it. He delivers the rap part with such conviction that it’s almost startling. No, Sheeran is a real artist. Maybe he needed some help to polish some of these songs or to come up with chords to put his lyrics to. It’s unclear just how much his collaborators actually contributed but it would be surprising if it turned out that they did most of the work on the songs they worked on. Listening to this album, and having listened to his debut, one gets the impression that Sheeran would never do a song that he barely had a hand in writing. He often comes off shy and vulnerable in his performances but he also seems strong and full of conviction.
“I’m a mess right now / Inside out,” Sheeran sings as “I’m a Mess,” the second track on the album, begins. And one gets the impression that he was in fact a mess when he wrote the song. He sounds like an unstable fellow during parts. He’s drinking to forget the woman he once crossed fingers with. But as the song reaches it’s conclusion, he starts singing about feeling love now, feeling it all around, so it ultimately ends on a semi-happy note.
“”I’m stumbling off drunk, getting myself lost, I am so gone,” he sings during the opening track “One,” a subtle track that initially consists of Sheeran and his guitar, a simple beat kicking in only after the first chorus. “You are the only one,” goes part of said chorus. It’s a beautiful song, but it’s also one of the least catchy tracks on the album, making it an odd opening track. Also, it’s a ballad and it’s very rare for artists to release albums that open with ballads. (To be sure, it’s quite common to open with ballads in certain regions, such as in China and Vietnam, but in Europe and the States it’s extremely rare.)
If you like gossip, you’ll have a ball listening to “Don’t,” a tune about a romance Sheeran had with a popstar, who he doesn’t dare name. It’s a very personal story that he’s telling and the only detail he seems to conceal is the girl’s name. But that almost makes it more interesting because it makes your mind wonder who it could be. He’s crossed paths with Taylor Swift many times, but it can’t be about her because they’re still dear friends. Perhaps Lindsay Lohan stalked him (so to speak) for a while then moved onto the next guy, as she often does if that list that was leaked is true. Regardless of who it’s about, it’s got some punchy beats courtesy of Benny Blanco, though Rick Rubin co-produced the track, which is likely why it otherwise has a very organic vibe, crisp and clear like Rubin’s usual productions.
One of the best tracks on the album is “The Man,” a genuine rap song. He sings the chorus, but the verses are entirely rap. And, you know what? He does an amazing job with it. “Success is nothing if you have no one there left to share it with,” he raps during the second verse of the song, which is about being burned by a woman. At one point he apologizes for it, stating that he just needed to get these things off of his chest. The song is a portrait of a man conflicted as it finds him hating and loving an ex all at once and trying to process his feelings and figure out what to do with them.
Clearly, love is the main theme of the album. But there’s something else you hear a lot about: drinking. During several songs he sings about drinking to forget women. “I feel the chemicals burn in my bloodstream / Fading out again / I feel the chemicals burn in my bloodstream / So tell me when it kicks in,” he sings during ‘Bloodstream,” a tune about drinking a bottle of red wine to deal with the loneliness he’s feeling over a woman apparently dumping him. It’s something very relatable, but one hopes this isn’t something he’s doing every night. If you analyzed all of the lyrics from every song on X you’d probably suspect that he’s a drunk. Hopefully, he just gets drunk now and then when he’s feeling the worst sting that follows a break up, that sting that makes one want to die. Staying sober through that is damn near impossible, so you can’t blame Sheeran for drinking. You just worry that he might be doing it too much by the time you finish listening to this album. But what you’ll mostly be thinking about will be your own experiences with heartache.