When doubters of Ed Sheeran’s bleary ballads and fronting folk-rap bristled over the “authenticity” issue at the time of his 2011 debut album, they missed the point. The vexing issue wasn’t Sheeran’s ability: it was how someone so melodically capable could turn out so bland without much outside input.
Any hope that external input might actually have helped is silenced by his follow-up, where various super-producers merely spotlight Sheeran’s shortcomings. On the Pharrell team-up “Sing”, Sheeran’s attempt to “do a Justin Timberlake” is deflated by a voice without wit or sex appeal. If you didn’t know Snow Patrol’s Johnny McDaid produced the ballad “Photograph”, its stolid plod through clichés about how lovin’ “can hurt” and “heal” should tell you. Even the redoubtable Rick Rubin can’t save “Bloodstream”, whose lyrics (“I feel the chemicals burn in my bloodstream”) echo David Gray’s “Babylon” to serotonin-reducing effect.
Elsewhere, we find Sheeran “searching for that sweet surrender”, pondering how “hearts collide” and sharing banalities about his love life. “Watching a DVD, smoking illegal weed”, goes “Nina”, a lyric for anyone nostalgic for the time Lily Allen sang about Chinese takeaways.
“Relatable” Facebook writing like this needs kinks to engage, but “The Man” is like the Streets ruthlessly purged of character. If the account of Sheeran’s grandfather’s illness on “Afire Love” fares better, it’s a one-off. Charmless kiss-offs (“Don’t”) and sappy sentiments (“People Fall in Love in Mysterious Ways”) dominate otherwise, landing with the thud of the authentically uninspiring.