Music Times writers share an office area of roughly 45 sq. ft, which makes having face-to-face conversations totally impossible. Junk Mail is these millenials' attempt to discuss and review the week's hottest album releases...without needing to look at each other.
This week: Caitlin Carter, Joey DeGroot, and Carolyn Menyes email back and forth about Ed Sheeran's x.
Carolyn Menyes: I've been following the rollout of Ed Sheeran's new album x really closely over the last few months, so you think I'd be a little Sheeran-ed out, but I'm still really into this record... more than I thought I would be. I really like how he's sort of exploring the concept of what a singer-songwriter can do here. He does a little bit of everything: the tender love ballad, the funky R&B Pharrell thing and he even raps a few times. It's kind of refreshing, to be honest. I'm glad this album isn't just 12 versions of "The A Team."
What do y'all think, at the open of this fine Junk Mail?
Caitlin Carter: I came into this album without much archival knowledge of Sheeran but knowing that people think he's a pretty big deal. Even when you don't count the deluxe tracks, the album is a bit long without much variety as far as song structure. Each song is packed with vocals. There aren't many moments that you don't hear his voice. Now, I get that a major draw for Sheeran fans are his lyrics and not really his abilities as a musician, but I left the album feeling overwhelmed. That said, I actually really liked his "rapping moments." It reminded me a lot of The Streets, which I didn't expect.
Joey DeGroot: Oh man, you guys enjoyed all the rapping and R&B stuff he was doing? I'm sorry, but that was exactly as embarrassing as I was expecting it to be. Pasty British kids with acoustic guitars should be doing stuff like the Smiths or Nick Drake, not hip-hop. I'm all in favor of branching out and experimenting, but this just sounded like Jason Mraz to me.
CM: That's really limiting, Joey. Not all British music/music by pale people has to be sad guys with guitars, despite what you may think. Sheeran's music has no real connection to The Smiths, except that they both share a general homeland... but Sheeran and Morrissey or whoever aren't even from the same region of England. You have to look at music within its own context. And we're looking at adult contemporary acoustic pop, not alt-rock.
So, yeah, there's no real doubting the similarities between Sheeran and Mraz; fans of one would logically enjoy the other. They're relaxed singer-songwriters, best known for striking love songs.
Where the "rapping" comes in, for Sheeran (and why I will defend it) is that he's more speak-singing than doing what, you know, Kanye West does. That's a longtime tradition in singer-songwriter circles and in beat poetry, which I feel like a song like "The Man" pulls from. This guy is spilling his pains and struggles and triumphs into his music, and there's real worth in that.
CC: I agree that I wouldn't consider his "rapping" traditional rapping, hence the quotation marks around it. I feel like it is in the style of Blur or as I said earlier, The Streets. For some reason, it is refreshing for me to hear rap with a British accent, and I don't think he's trying to sound hood or anything but rather play off the beat and the timing as a way to get across the dozens of words he has written.
That said, I don't want to listen to that all day long, and the only real instance of me enjoying it was on "The Man." I have to give him props on his lyricism though, despite how overwhelming it becomes on an hour-long album.
Let's move beyond the rapping, though. Anything specific you all enjoyed, hated?
JD: What I do really appreciate is how stripped down much of this album is. Pop albums these days often feel the need to fill absolutely every second with sound, and make the songs as huge and bright as possible, but Sheeran does just the opposite here. Even "folk" bands like Mumford & Sons are just arena rock bands in disguise, but there's a genuine intimacy to a lot of these songs. Also, he's an excellent singer, and doesn't hide behind Autotune or anything similar that should be off limits to folk pop artists.
CM: Yeah, this album is very bombastic and in-your-face but at just the right times Sheeran will pull himself back and let it rest for a beat or two. I like x infinitely more than I thought I would. I went into this Sheeran album cycle never having listened to his first album '+' before, so I'm really pleasantly surprised.
I particularly love how he does a lot of exploring here, both lyrically and musically. I already touched on all his musical styles but I also like his messages here: He touches on cheating exes, falling in love again, substance abuse, family issues, general happiness and sadness. It's really honest, and I appreciate that from a singer-songwriter.
CC: One thing you can't fault him for is his authenticity. I also have to give him credit for his ability to make his mark on the pop world while not having a conventional sound. Despite comparisons to Mraz, there really aren't any other relevant artists on the radio right now with his style.
CM: For sure. Let's talk specific tracks? What did y'all like, hate?
JD: Well we all know which songs I hated, and while I didn't exactly "like" many tracks, I thought "Thinking Out Loud" was a nice change of pace. It wasn't quite folk, and it wasn't hip-hop, but it almost had the feel of a '90s R&B slow jam. It seems to me that he does ballads much better than anything else.
CM: Ed Sheeran pulls a lot from R&B on x, more so than folk, in my opinion. But he's never been a folky guy. I like the R&B direction on this album quite a bit and the lyrics of a lover scorned are always great. So, then it's logical that "Don't" and "Sing" are among my favorites. He's really pissed at Ellie Goulding, and it's pretty saucy and satisfying.
As for the tender moments, it doesn't get much better for me than "Afire Love." The pain of Alzheimer's disease is really clear here and the first time I heard this song last week, it broke my heart. And for pure love songs, I think "Photograph" is very well done. Sheeran can paint a great lyrical portrait.
Your thoughts, Caitlin?
CC: "Don't" was one of my favorites as well. I also liked "Bloodstream," which shows more of his folk side while having a big sound. I feel like pretty much everyone could find a song on this album that they relate to, which is probably what makes him so successful.
CM: That's really accurate -- he knows how to relate to a wide variety of people. That could feel a little bit like catering to the audience, but he makes it seem genuine.
JD: Yeah I totally agree that Sheeran's not really trying to be cool or anything. He's just doing his own thing and he was lucky enough to have a lot of people respond positively to it. Even the rapping stuff that I hated seemed very genuine to me, as if he and his friends sincerely love hip-hop and hang around having rap battles all the time, even if it is incredibly dorky. His music may not be my thing, but at least he's not a fake person.
CM: I think that's what makes him a star. I mean, it's pretty obvious that he's not a conventionally handsome dude, he even mentions that nobody wants to see him shirtless in one of his "rap" songs, but he's so darn earnest it's hard not to like the guy.
As much as I like x, that doesn't mean the whole thing works for me. Even though you like "Bloodstream," Caitlin, it's the one track I could never get that in to. And in the office you mentioned this was a very dense album. I feel like you should speak more to that, though, so I don't steal your thunder, even though I totally agree.
CC: Yeah. I definitely don't think this hefty of an album is something to listen to in one sitting. I felt overwhelmed by all the words and the array of emotions (as I said before), which made it hard for me to really get into on the first listen. For me, this album is easier to digest in small bites over a period of time or as singles.
CM: Ed Sheeran just has a lot of feelings.
CC: There also wasn't much of a structural hierarchy to the album. The songs seemed to be competing for my attention, if that makes sense.
JD: What I find interesting is how even though the album is supposedly a "dying" art form, and everyone's attention spans are getting shorter every year, pop artists still insist on releasing these massive albums with a million bonus tracks, like Ed Sheeran did here and Lana Del Rey did with Ultraviolence. Maybe these are just more desperate attempts at getting people to actually buy the physical copies of the album.
CM: Fans love "exclusives" and bonus tracks, but you're right. To the average listener, these things get really drawn out. x to me didn't feel nearly as long as Ultraviolence did (still not over that one, to be honest) but it does go on for quite a while. Realistically, the artist and label are probably trying to squeeze in as many singles as possible, since those are the real mark of success in 2014.
CM: I always feel like the great champion of pop music in Junk Mail, and I guess this week is no different, even though Ed Sheeran isn't so much pop as an adult contemporary artist. I really enjoyed x though, more than I thought I would. There's something really refreshing about such an honest musician, and I can see why Sheeran has so many fans because of that. And even though you guys think it is, I don't think the "rap" songs are so awkward... I really see them as a true expression of Sheeran's thoughts and feelings. So yes. Imma be cheesy and say x marks the spot.
CC: I thought x lacked focus a bit, unless it was a concept album called "Emotions." That said, it felt undeniably authentic, and I feel for the guy. After a thorough listen, you get to know more about him and his way of thinking, which I'm sure his die-hard fans love. His music isn't necessarily my thing, but I can appreciate him laying it all out there and being successful as a pop artist (or adult contemporary artist, rather) with an unconventional sound.
JD: I hated some parts of x, but I still don't hate Ed Sheeran, which I find pretty miraculous. I'm not a fan, but when he's in his sensitive balladeer mode, he hits all of the right notes and performs better than many current pop performers, even his best bud Taylor Swift. The raps though...they're just so lame, I'm sorry. I will never come around to acoustic guitar rap.