Among musical newcomers vying for the title of "The Next Big Thing," British acoustic troubadour Ed Sheeran is near the front of the 2014 pack (with Sam Smith, Iggy Azalea and Lana Del Rey all running right alongside him.). Brandishing a raw, vulnerable and at times jaded take on romance, Ed's delicate falsetto and fingerpicked guitar work evoke Simon & Garfunkel and John Mayer one moment, Prince and Maroon 5's Adam Levine the next. And if his strong first-week sales of 210,000 units are any indication, fans have a healthy appetite for the decidedly mixed messages about love and commitment, sex and chemical excess that his second album, x (reportedly alphabetical shorthand for the word multiply), serves up.
"Photograph" affirms the healing power of love ("Loving can heal, loving can mend your soul"). "Tenerife Sea" gushes, "'Cause all that you are is all that I'll ever need/I'm so in love, so in love." "Thinking Out Loud" finds Sheeran visualizing a lifetime of faithfulness to one woman ("And darling I will be loving you 'til we're 70/ ... When my hair's all but gone and my memory fades/ ... I know you will still love me all the same"). "Nina" includes these lines affirming a woman's God-given worth: "And I'll say you are beautiful without your make-up/And you don't even need to worry about your weight 'cause/We can all be loved the way God made us."
Poignant album closer "Afire Love" will have listeners reaching for Kleenex as Ed recounts memories of his grandfather's struggle with Alzheimer's and his eventual funeral. The song also recounts his grandmother's tender memories of the life she and her husband shared. And it talks about heaven being our desired end ("And if you fell to your death today/I hope that heaven is your resting place").
"Bloodstream" is a cautionary and confessional song about how alcohol fuels promiscuity and undermines the possibility of real love ("God, make me another one/I'll be feeling this tomorrow/Lord, forgive me for the things I've done/I was never meant to hurt no one/I saw scars upon a brokenhearted lover"). On a parallel trajectory, "Runaway" describes a young man fleeing home to get away from his unfeeling, alcoholic father.
On "The Man," Sheeran laments that a woman he once loved couldn't cope with his long absences and cheated with another man. His father says family is what matters most ("Success is nothing if you have no one there left to share it with"). The song also critiques dependency on alcohol and pot ("I'm frightened to think if I depend on cider and drink/And lighting a spliff I fall into a spiral") and worries about the possibility of the early death such indulgences might trigger ("And I'd be writing my will before I'm/27, I'll die from a thrill/Go down in history as just a wasted talent.")
"One" references getting drunk, as does "I'm a Mess." The latter finds a desperate man longing to resuscitate a lifeless relationship by way of alcohol and sex ("I messed up this time/Late last night/Drinking to suppress emotion/With fingers intertwined/ ... And though I've only caused you pain/ ... See the flames inside my eyes/It burns so bright, I wanna feel your love").
Less romantic and much more casual in its approach to getting drunk, smoking marijuana and hooking up is "Sing." Ed croons, "I want you to be mine, lady/To hold your body close/ ... Something to drink and maybe something to smoke/ ... I'm drunk/ ... We just sit on the couch/One thing led to another and now she's kissing my mouth."
More of the same fills "Don't," on which we hear about another casual sexual relationship ("I reckon she was only looking for a lover to burn/But I gave her my time for two or three nights") with a fellow celebrity (allegedly Ellie Goulding) that gets more emotionally entangled and complicated when she sleeps with someone else ("I never saw him as a threat/Until you disappeared with him to have sex, of course"). The chorus repeatedly instructs, "Don't f‑‑‑ with my love," with Sheeran using an inhaled breath and a hint of the k sound to self-censor the obscenity. "Nina" chronicles a similar relationship, one that also included sex and marijuana—with Scottish singer-songwriter Nina Nesbitt. Eventually, Sheeran tries to talk her out of the relationship because he says he's more committed to his career than he ever will be to her. And the song ends on a rather despairing note: "People grow and fall apart/But you can't mend your broken heart/Take it back, go/Oh, won't you leave me now." "The Man" includes a censored s-word.
After I reviewed Ed Sheeran's single "Sing" a month or so before this album was released, I thought, Great, just another guy who thinks life is all about casual sex. But the full picture of life and love and intimacy and brokenness that Sheeran paints on x is actually a lot more complex than that—for better and worse.
Touching songs imagine a lifetime of marital faithfulness, something that was exemplified by at least one set of Sheeran's grandparents. He longs to love and to be loved unconditionally, and he imagines a marriage of his own that he can cherish forever. That's the good stuff.
But I think it's safe to say that Ed's having a pretty hard time actually finding that kind of love. In his more self-aware moments, he reflects on how his affection for both alcohol and marijuana, not to mention his complicated traveling life as a musician, conspire to make lasting romance difficult. Then, in his darker moments, songs more than hint at his willingness to trade those dreams of permanent commitment for the fleeting pleasures of casual sex as well as flat-out dead-end relationships.
It's a convoluted and conflicted self-portrait, one in which ideals and vices get brushed onto the canvas in equal measure, then multiplied by the emotional intensity of Sheeran's voice and music. That vexing dichotomy is perhaps best expressed by one of Sheeran's own song titles: "I'm a Mess." There's yearning for goodness here, to be sure. But there's messiness too.