Review Summary: Too much can still mean too little.
Internet critic and comedian Todd in the Shadows has coined and frequently brought up a genre he likes to call the "White Guy with an Acoustic Guitar" genre. Basically, the phrase refers to (as the name would imply) usually white solo guitarists and singers who either play overly simplistic indie folk or boring reggae chords with no depth or meaning whatsoever. Obviously this isn't a stab against every
white male with an acoustic guitar (considering how much great folk and blues there is, among other genres), but rather the modern pop trope that concerns the aforementioned qualities. And the one who appears to be leading the charge currently is the British Ron Weasley doppelganger Ed Sheeran, who broke out into the mainstream in a big way with his 2011 single "The A Team." While he does indeed land in Todd in the Shadows' phrase, he definitely displayed much more depth and vocal prowess than many of his peers on +. His mixture of folk, soul, and R&B on the debut won him a lot of supporters and garnered the acclaim of critics and fans alike, but how would such a mellow and soulful debut be followed up? Well, with X, we've unfortunately got a case of an artist who's trying to do too much and ends up failing in a multitude of areas as a result.
As many of you might have already noticed from promotions and the album's lead single "Sing," the emphasis of Ed Sheeran's style has shifted quite a bit since we last heard him. Instead of a sincere folk album, we get a weird and frankly unappealing mish mash of sterile-sounding indie folk, frequent hip-hop elements, alternative rock, and other stuff Sheeran just kinda threw in there. The hip-hop in particular sounds really forced, and Ed now utilizes more of his higher falsetto-based vocal range a la Pharrell Williams (who does indeed help in the songwriting process of "Sing" so maybe he threw some influence his way). Despite calmer folkier numbers like serene opener "One" or the nicely harmonized vocals of "Tenerife Sea" rearing their heads, it feels as though the overconfidence of the faster tracks ends up negating the meaning and intimacy of these bright spots. But things become even more blurred, as even the faster tracks sound too safe and - as said before - sterile. The songs are confident, but safe enough for the pop crowd to easily digest. Sheeran found a formula that works for the general public, but why bother when it sounds like a passionless craft? Even the folk tunes get extremely old once you realize how similar each chord pattern and vocal melody is; "Photograph" might have some nice sentimental value with its light drum work and varied array of background instrumentation to give it atmosphere, until the song builds and turns into a boring pop arrangement with the all-too-familiar I-V-vi-IV four-chord set-up (used in "Let it Be," "Don't Stop Believin'," "Let it Go," etc.). And songs like "Don't" and "Runaway" are just insulting in the way they recycle such similar damn "minimalist" hip-hop beats and "bluesy" vocal lines from Mr. Sheeran. Everything sounds so samey, and even when a breath of fresh air like the piano-driven R&B number like "Nina" comes along, it's already too late. X is a vapid and overly confident album that feels more like regression than progression for Ed Sheeran's indie folk sound. Go buy a Bon Iver record instead.