After the resounding success of his "+" album, it makes sense for Sheeran to want to mix things up a bit. While most of his debut album was dedicated to his ex-girlfriend, here only one of the songs is about her - namely album opener "Once". Ditto with the production side, with Jake Gosling presiding over almost the entirely of the first album, and this time Gosling only produces a single track - suitably enough, it's also "Once". This is obviously a tactician's move, segueing us all from the old ex-obsessed Ed, before introducing us to the new sex-obsessed Ed.
Of course, first official single "Sing" did that all by itself. The first of two Pharrell-produced tracks has the super-producers fingerprints all over it, sounding a lot (too much?) like Justin Timberlake's "Like I Love You" during the verse, before coming into its own during the howling, sing-along chorus. However, anyone expecting a singer-songwriter version of JT will be left sorely disappointed, as Sheeran has instead become a watered down version of The Streets; see rap-talk track "The Man" for undeniable evidence of Sheeran's apparent want to be the new Frank Skinner.
The other Pharrell track, "Runaway", is much more mid-tempo, built over a finger-clicking rhythm, but dealing with an abusive father and unloving home, don't hold out this to be Sing 2.0. Elsewhere, Benny Blanco supplies the swagger he provided to Maroon 5 for "Moves Like Jagger" and "Payphone", here delivering one of the album highlights with "Don't", a giant middle finger to a famous ex-girlfriend.
Despite the presence of a genius like Rick Rubin, ballads like "Bloodstream" and "Tenerife Sea" never quite take off properly, with only "I'm A Mess" leaving the lasting impression that a collaboration with Rubin feels like it should. Snow Patrol's Johnny McDaid co-writes and produces all too forgettable break-up song "Nina", romantic but borderline saccharine "Thinking Out Loud", and "Photographs", which Sheeran himself has described as the song destined to change the course of his career - he's obviously aiming for it to be his "Angels", but it fails to compare to even some of Snow Patrol's bigger ballads. It's perfectly nice, and will probably sound great in a giant arena illuminated solely by lighters held by crying sixteen year old girls, but it's not really something to write home about.
In the end, the more things change, the more things stay the same. Ed Sheeran fans won't be disappointed, and this new album may even get him a few new supporters. But despite all the cutting edge folk working away behind the scenes, and almost in spite of the warning shot that "Sing" sounded out, this is all still very middle of the road stuff. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's very difficult to get "x"-cited about.
THREE OUT OF FIVE