I first saw Ed Sheeran some months back in his now famous ‘SB.TV’ video, which captured me instantly with his air of musical individuality, creative loop-pedal layering and raw, acoustic delivery. In fact, I was so captured that I bought out the entire online back-catalogue of his LP’s, all of which were independently produced, and managed to catch a live gig when the opportunity arose.
Rarely has such a reaction to one particular musician or band been so favourable or immediate for me; I was stunned at how consistently the music Ed plays manages to speak directly to the soul, both vocally and instrumentally; an instinctive talent that eludes even some of the most technically accomplished performers. Throughout his captivating chords and rhythms, poignant lead riffs, enjoyable rhyming structures and heartfelt vocals shines a priceless resonance, greater than the sum of its impressive parts. Remarkably, it is often both easily accessible to the casual ear whilst being highly rewarding with a deeper listen, seemingly without compromise.
Citing artists like Damien Rice as big musical influences even in his younger years, an appreciation for the artistic potential of music seems always to have been woven into Ed’s character and is especially evident in the core framework of his most recent LP’s. Aside from such refined appreciations during his youth, a catalogue of unique and inspiring experiences including a pivotal encounter with Mr Rice himself and guitar-tech duty with Nizlopi gave him priceless first-hand experience of the music world. Having since integrated himself into the writing and performing scene as many attempt to do so, he took things a step further by finding his own niche musically, mixing styles and performance methods to his own tastes, eventually standing out from the crowd as a result.
Also noteworthy for those new to the Ed Sheeran bandwagon, or those yet unconvinced that he may be as unique a prospect as my hyperbole suggests: he is not yet even twenty years old. That he has now created and distributed five unique and enjoyable independent LP’s demonstrates the huge amount of work that must have been committed to his art from a very young age.
It seems my own appreciation is just a drop in the ocean though; I’m just one person in an online fan base akin to an army, reminiscent of the movement that launched the Arctic Monkeys from their MySpace platform to the limelight some years ago. Not just passive in their enjoyment, Ed’s fans seem generally that bit more involved and invested in his career than with other artists or bands. Like in my recent article about the X Factor, where I reflected on the public’s love of realising a rags-to-riches narrative, there seems to be a similar sentiment involved for those that support Ed’s music; a number that is growing exponentially.
The strong loyalty and voracious goodwill from his fans is the driving force behind his recent conquering of the iTunes album charts, despite his independent production and limited financial backing. Overtaking heavily marketed artists including Rihanna, Eliza Doolittle, Tinie Tempah and literally hundreds more, all armed with their relevant promotion and radio play, it proved a fascinating and inspiring event when his final independent LP hit the coveted No.1 spot.
It also established that whilst capable of his own distinctive sound, his ability to diversify and collaborate is equally striking, and indeed marketable - this most recent and vastly most successful LP, ‘No.5 Collaborations Project’ is comprised entirely of ensemble pieces, featuring some of the biggest names in the Grime/Urban scenes.
At first listen it sounded notably darker in content than the general buoyancy I associate with his previous releases. Menacing, terse spitting from MC’s coupled with ominous, bass-driven beats paints a cold, stormy backdrop, often then framed with lyrics laden with despair, melancholy and anguish. This cocktail compounds to form an initially bleak and oppressive sound, however it is this darkness which allows for the frequently stunning juxtaposition of Ed’s warmer, more inspiring overlaps, illuminating the narratives like a light of hope at the end of a dark tunnel, lifting proceedings into an often bittersweet yet enjoyable conflict of emotional tides.
Generally the polish and finesse of all aspects of production and performance are so impressively tight and collected that I consider ‘No.5’ to be a truly proud and significant artistic work, and potentially a turning point in both the accessibility and evolution of the Grime/Urban scene. Touching on the deep themes of love, family and legacy, it is evident throughout that this is indeed a project driven by passion, far from the uninspiring, ‘lowest common denominator’ material that is so rife generally.
Built on a concrete foundation throughout, ‘No.5’ sees a diverse array of styles across its course; a slick Devlin, superb Wiley, quick-fire P Money and an effortless JME stamp their mark in the opening four tracks. An intense performance by Ghetts and the peppering of Random Impulse, Sway and Wretch 32 into the mix towards the end of the LP complete an impressively seasoned melting pot of content and delivery.
However, standing out ahead of the crowd for me is ‘Little Lady’, a reworking of what people may recognise in parts as ‘The A Team’ (from 2010 LP, ‘Loose Change’), now re-developed and re-contextualised with Mikill Pane’s gutting, grave narrative. An incredibly poignant lead guitar interlude and Ed’s stirring choruses combine with Mikill’s bleak verse to paint a beautifully painful canvas, akin to similarly intense rap-narrative masterpieces like Immortal Technique’s ‘You Never Know’ and infamous ‘Dance with the Devil’. Ultimately, as tragic and dark a tale as ‘Little Lady’ may be, the execution is beautifully poetic; its few meanderings into tones of hope are welcome if fleeting rays of a warm sun, setting inevitably into a looming winters night.
The wistful, tender ‘Goodbye To You’ collaboration with Dot Rotten closes the LP with poise; the final track in a collection built from emotion, carved with affection and finished with a measured flair. I knew I would like ‘No.5’, even if previously sceptical of its Grime skew, but I wasn’t prepared for just how much I would enjoy it’s rollercoaster journey – it has solidified my interest in Ed Sheeran as an artist, and whilst brilliant in its own merit, it also proves another solid benchmark for his future work.
Having pre-ordered this LP some weeks before release, I was unable to download it on launch day via Ed’s website as I had expected to. Shortly after dropping a note on his Facebook fan page to see if there was any solution available I received a personal apology from a close member of his family and core team, who then e-mailed the LP to me, track by track. To receive such a swift and personal response perfectly illustrated the contrast in the scale of operations in play; further impressing on me how remarkable an achievement it was to top the iTunes album chart with no advertising, no label backing and no team of employees to handle the massive influx of attention and orders that flooded in. Once again I was further endeared with Ed’s ‘grassroots’ journey.
Whilst the No.1 album sales position was only held briefly in the iTunes store, the underdog had managed to successfully take on ‘the man’ in a David vs. Goliath style showdown. Scruffy ginger hair, baggy hoody, scuffed jeans and a relaxed, everyday manner make Ed the antithesis of the meticulously styled, self-promoting chart stars we are accustomed to. A sentiment shared amongst many that bought the ‘No.5’ LP was that it was not just a breath of fresh air, but a triumph, one fan declaring his purchase on iTunes as being the, “Best use of £6.32 I can remember”. (Chris Hogg, iTunes Store)
Able to catch him play a superb set in Bristol music den ‘The Croft’ some months ago, I wasn't aware that the new LP could prove anywhere near so successful, although I was aware of a growing momentum. Perhaps I caught the last round of the intimate gigs before the tipping point that ‘Collaborations’ may prove to be?
Interestingly, that night Ed shared the bill with some of the ‘Laid Blak’ crew, who’s ‘Red’ lyrics he covered whilst criss-crossing influences eclectically in the anthemic ‘You Need Me, I Don’t Need You’ SB.TV video. After a great set, during which Ed had stirred the crowd up with songs etched into their consciousness through countless YouTube views, a unique energy ran through the room following a genuinely appreciated performance. Jumping down from the stage for an encore, Ed played his guitar unplugged in the centre of the room, surrounded by a relatively small but buzzing audience of fans, thrilled with the surprising twist to the nights events. I remember during this intense and unexpected bonus that the crowd shot down a few stragglers chatting on the periphery as if they were giggling during a sermon – this was one of the most dedicated and enthusiastic audiences I’d seen in a long while, and they had no priority higher than soaking in the music.
Perhaps a result of his comparatively young age, his endearing, unpretentious manner, his ‘hidden gem’ underground status, or the fact I knew I was on the crest of a wave about to crash its impact across society, a strange sense of pride was evident in me that night, and I wasn’t alone – it seemed like people felt they were personally contributing to something they believed in. Sometimes music feels bigger than just sounds.
If not already etching an inkling on the consciousness of the general public after increasingly frequent appearances online and in print, a tour with Example (a partnership which produced the ‘Nando’s Skank’) and a remarkably opportune hook-up with Jamie Foxx in Los Angeles last summer, the recent record deal Ed signed with Atlantic records should rapidly increase his profile and budget for future works.
Whilst this will inevitably lead to increased record sales, more frequent tour dates at larger venues and a greater occurrence of media coverage, it must be noted that most of these ‘advances’ form a direct step away from the rare and therefore valued glimpses behind his music and the intimate, loyal audiences that Ed has made his own. Messages written by Ed on Twitter recognise the fact that people were worrying his signing a deal may mean ‘selling out’, but any fears of a loss of artistic control were quickly soothed, “Because of you guys I'm allowe(d) to make the album I wanna make, how I wanna make it, with the songs I wanna have on it, which means the world”.
So far Ed Sheeran has demonstrated that big ambitions can be realised if pursued with hard work and passion, both artistically and more recently, commercially. If the emotional resonance, unique style and refreshingly humble man behind the music can remain intact under the spotlights of the big league, Ed Sheeran will continue to be one of the most interesting and promisingly creative talents to watch over coming years. The future’s bright...
Darren Paul Thompson
Image Sources: Ed Sheeran Facebook Fan Page
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