London Shepherd's Bush Empire
A FOUNDING MYTH of modern music has Robert Johnson, that most occult and eerie of early bluesmen, meeting the Devil at a Mississippi crossroads one moonless night, and trading his soul for his talent. If shaggy, affable Ed Sheeran ever struck such a bargain as a teenage troubadour, he must have sold his soul to Santa.
Sheeran is an energetic sheepdog of a pop star, a creature quite devoid of malice or menace. It's as if a younger incarnation of Jamie Oliver has suddenly materialised atop the charts. To call him up-and-coming would be behind the times. At 20 years of age, with two top ten hits, a number one album (titled simply “+”), and a sold out tour behind him, Ed Sheeran has arrived.
The last time I heard female screaming on this order was at a Justin Bieber show, but there the similarities end. Sheeran is plainly as sweet and sincere as Bieber is saccharine and manipulative. He has genuine musical aptitude, manifested in a curious combination of acoustic pop and rap.
He isn't the first to do this, by a long chalk; one can trace it at least as far back as Beck's 1994 album Mellow Gold. But his variation on it is distinctive. He's the point at which middle England meets, and jams with, the estates of London - sometimes literally, as evidenced by a previous set of collaborations with such grime acts as Wiley and Wretch 32.
The + album features layered production, but on stage, he performs entirely solo. “There's no backing tracks or tricks,” he proudly announces. But what does it matter if he loops a sample on the spot or triggers it from a computer? The only significant difference is one is trickier to do; and once that becomes a gauge of artistic merit, we might as well institute a Nobel Prize for Chainsaw Juggling and be done with it.
There's more than a whiff of the street performer about Sheeran. You can imagine him with his home-made guitar and effects boxes in Covent Garden, geeing up the crowd. Which is not to say he's merely a glorified busker. But unless you're one of those screaming girls, you're liable to find the charm wearing thin before long.
Currently, he's making relatively little material go too long a way. Moreover, despite the steady, strong voice revealed by a capella renditions of Irish ballads and spirituals, his customary vocal adopts that plaintive, breathy mannerism long common to a certain school of singer-songwriter - as if only a faintly whiny tone can convey feelings as keen as theirs. It swiftly becomes cloying.
Sheeran is a precociously accomplished writer in some respects, while in others he's something of a naif. On You Need Me, I Don't Need You, his most belligerent tune - even here, he sounds little more than mildly miffed - he boasts that, “He didn't go to Brit school.” As well he might. They'd probably have knocked the corners off him, but it's hard to imagine they could have made him any cuddlier. When he sings, as he often does, about drinking too much, it makes you think, aw, shouldn't somebody put him to bed?
British pop is just now going through an era dominated by the genteel. Sheeran is its new princeling. That there seems dispiritingly little by way of alternatives is scarcely his fault. It's not he who has occasioned the annexing of pop by the privileged; but it has created an environment in which he can flourish, one which innately favours the bouncy and the bloodless. There he stands, the amiable emblem of an age of well-bred niceness.
There's a fair bit more to Sheeran than to most of his peers, and doubtless that's at the heart of his remarkable rise. But when the competition is so insipid, you don't need to be Elvis or Johnny Rotten to surpass it. Just a pleasant, moderately inventive lad with a clutch of artful songs.