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The scruff from Suffolk who hit the road with his acoustic guitar to build up a fan base the old-fashioned way now has a clutch of Brit awards and a US top five album to his name. Taylor Swift is a pal, Elton John offers career advice, Rick Rubin produces him and Pharrell Williams co-writes songs with him. Has it all gone to Ed Sheeran’s head?
The attempt to channel Justin Timberlake on the Pharrell-assisted “Sing” might suggest so – but actually the song turns out to be charming and unforced, a natural blend of Sheeran’s acoustic pop and Williams’ precisely syncopated funk. Elsewhere the boyish balladeer of old returns, bigger and slicker (Johnny McDaid of Snow Patrol’s co-writing fingerprints are all over “Photograph”) but without compromising Sheeran’s open manner. “Sorry for the honesty, but I had to get this off my chest,” he semi-raps in “The Man”, addressing an ex-girlfriend left behind by fame: the song’s sentiments are a peculiar mix of insecurity, arrogance and neediness, as ambivalent about celebrity as about the ex.
The Van Morrison-goes-Jack Johnson blandishments of “Thinking Out Loud” show how fame might yet bland out Sheeran, but “Don’t” is the antidote: an R&B hand-clapper about being cuckolded in a relationship with a fellow pop star (“Me and her, we make money the same way/Four cities, two planes, the same day”), catchy as anything but with a streak of steel.