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Ed Sheeran, No 6 Collaborations Project, review: starry combinations produce predictable pop smashes

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Ed Sheeran in London in June
Ed Sheeran in London in June Credit:  REUTERS

“I was born a misfit,” Ed Sheeran raps on Remember The Name. “Grew up 10 miles from the town of Ipswich.” I suspect that represents the first ever mention of the sleepy Suffolk town in what is sure to be a global pop smash.

This mix of the mundane and glamorous is a big part of the anomalous appeal of Sheeran, a bespectacled, English singer-songwriter who has somehow become the biggest pop star in the world. Sheeran’s previous three albums have sold in multi-millions, his songs are streamed in the billions and he tours vast stadiums armed only with his battered acoustic guitar.

Representing almost a polar opposite of the kind of Kardashian-hyperreality that drives social media for the selfie-generation, Sheeran’s romanticisation of everyman ordinariness reflects a persistent desire for human authenticity in our over-connected information era. Even when he raps about ambition, it is from the nerdy perspective of a British outsider: “You know I want more than I already got / Give me a song with Eminem and 50 Cent in the club.” 

And lo, it came to pass. Sheeran’s superstar childhood heroes weigh in on Remember My Name, rapping about the struggle to succeed against the odds, a universal theme that resonates from Ipswich to Hollywood, uniting geeks and gangsters alike.

They are among 22 guests on Sheeran’s new album, No 6 Collaborations Project (rather confusing titled in succession to his pre-fame, self-released fifth EP, No. 5 Collaborations Project). The original 2011 project showcased Sheeran’s work with UK grime artists, allowing the young singer-songwriter to stretch out and demonstrate his affinity for rap music. It helped develop the sing-song lyrical flow that became Sheeran’s winning style, adroitly blending the melodiousness of folk and wordiness of hip-hop.

The guests on his new album, though, are considerably more starry, befitting his heightened profile. They include top ranking pop superstars (Justin Bieber, Bruno Mars, Camille Cabello, Cardi B, Chris Stapleton, Skrillex), high-profile artists (Khalid, Chance The Rapper), a trio of UK rap’s hottest MCs (Stormzy, J Hus and Dave) and a smattering of trendy rising talents who stand to benefit most from Sheeran’s endorsement (H.E.R., Yebba). It no longer seems to be about stretching musical parameters but sharing brand appeal.

No 6 Collaborations Project is being pitched as a side-step or diversion from Sheeran’s career path, breaking the mathematical title sequence of his first three albums, +, x, and ÷. Actually, maths remains resolutely at its core of an album with the potential to be bigger than anything Sheeran has done before. It features 15 tracks of smooth, smart, slickly produced super-pop that will almost certainly dominate charts for much of the year, continuing the imperial phase of Sheeran’s astonishing career.

I Don’t Care, his witty, touching duet with Justin Bieber is already the hit of the summer, spending eight (going on nine) weeks at Number One in the UK (and over 20 other countries, including the USA). The theme of that song is Sheeran’s baseline romantic staple, rhapsodising a deep yet down-to-earth love that negates judgement and requires no validation from the outside world.

It’s a subject reprised on Beautiful People (with Khalid), Cross Me (with Chance The Rapper), Put It All On Me (with Ella Mai) and particularly Best Part of Me (with Yebba) on which Sheeran seeks the reassurance of someone who can love him despite the fact that his “hair is thin and falling out of all the wrong places.”

These are the kind of details with which Sheeran has become adept, rooting pop’s fairy tale sentimentality in the relatable concerns of normal life. Even when blissful domesticity is challenged on I Don’t Want Your Money (with H.E.R.), the message remains that love will conquer all, including squabbles about bills. Sheeran is an absolute master of such everyday anthems, conjuring a flow of melody and lyrics that is sweet, elegant and emotionally sincere. And if it always sounds like something you’ve heard before, well, that seems to be half the point. It is all about reassuring listeners, not challenging them.

You could say the same about the musical choices themselves. “I want to try new things, they just want me to sing,” Sheeran raps on Stormzy collaboration Take Me Back to London. But, in truth, we have heard this rapping underdog persona many times before. His complaint that “nobody thinks that I write rhymes” is slightly undermined by the paucity of the lines that follow: ‘Now I’m back in the biz with my guys / Give me a pack of crisps and my pint.” If that is the best he can do, maybe he really should leave it to the professionals who effectively commandeer his pop licks on 1000 Nights (Meek Mill), Feels (Young Thug and J Hus) and Antisocial (Travis Scott).

At the start of his career, Sheeran was strongly influenced by the kind of spiritually questing acoustic music of Damien Rice and David Gray, reaching back to the deeper and more profound concerns of classic Sixties and Seventies sensitive singer-songwriters. Combining that with hip-hop rhythms gave it a contemporary pop edge, unleashing potential I doubt anyone involved in Sheeran’s career even suspected.

Success is seductive, and Sheeran has been incredibly focussed in taking his art into ever more commercial places. But a life of hotels and stadiums seems to have narrowed his perspective. Lyrically, there is nothing here to reflect the social concerns that powered his 2011 breakthrough single, The A Team. Musically, there is not much to separate it from the wave of pop singer-songwriters who have inevitably followed in his wake.

Sheeran certainly cannot be blamed for all the record company sponsored ordinary boys with big voices (Lewis Capaldi, George Ezra, Tom Grennan, Tom Walker) tremulously emoting over acoustic guitars and digital beats. But the fact remains that much of mainstream pop music sounds like Sheeran now, diminishing the freshness of his own oeuvre.

A side-project might have been an opportunity to side-step the obvious and show us (and more importantly himself) what else he can do. But when Sheeran does break with his usual writing and production styles, it is only as novelty rather than with any sense of genuine adventure. The album concludes bombastically with a heavy blues rocker, Blow (with pop rock star Bruno Mars and country singer Chris Stapleton), which features Sheeran wailing about making a baby with his woman. It is so retrogressive and fake, it is hard to escape the notion that it was only included for its potential to widen the demographic of everyone involved.

Sheeran is an extremely gifted songwriter, whose vocal talents have been proven. But can he dig deeper than just more songs about marrying the girl next door, or being taken seriously as a geeky rapper from Suffolk? Now that he has the world at his feet, would it hurt to experiment a little? Instead, Sheeran has delivered a solid commercial showcase of the power of contemporary pop music brands. It is a case of Superstars Assemble. A fan base shared is a fan base multiplied.