Scarlet Letters Album by Taylor Swift
Eight years, four studio albums, several singles that got played too many times, and a lot of gossipy tabloid publicity into her fairly illustrious career, I finally convinced myself to take a gamble on a Taylor Swift album after hearing I Knew You Were Trouble and Everything Has Changed on the radio. One of these songs piqued my interest in hearing the rest of Swift’s offerings while the other made me want to run as far from them as possible, but we’ll get to that in due course. In any case, the former impulse thankfully prevailed and I became an official latecomer to the fan club after growing up in the company of several avowed Swifties who may have let their imaginations get away from them and succumbed to the scientifically documented dysfunction of irrational celebrity-muse-crush-syndrome.
You’re probably thinking like Bugs Bunny right now: what a bunch of maroons! How could any of them naïvely assume that such a desirable and well regarded noblewoman would even given them a second glance? I would never fall victim to that kind of delusion. But this is exactly what happened to my friends, who indulged their fantasies to such a degree that they gleefully memorized every line of her every album – every album that is, except the latest one, which many of her older fans reviled as a betrayal of her Nashville country origins and which I have one friend on record as calling a “piece of crap”, or something along those lines. His evaluation was right to a certain extent, as a select few of Red’s 16 songs are little more than overly engineered, noisy, lyrically vapid crap, but Swift has still assembled a generally traditional, joyful, and well crafted collection of songs. Red isn’t wholly pop or country in tone, nor does it attempt to meticulously recreate the many breakups and makeups she’s undergone just to placate her stalkers’ prying intrigue (which I as a cynical outsider had admittedly been expecting from my pre-conceived stereotypes), but it’s a kind of intersection of many styles and themes that’s worded with integrity (so far as I can tell, which isn’t far because I’m not a Swiftie), sung with feeling, and painted in daring, astonishing red…
“So he calls me up” (there’s almost as much “calling” people on Red as on 24, come to think of it) “and he’s like / ‘I still love you,’ and I’m like / ‘I mean, this is exhausting, you know? / Like, we are never ever getting back together. / Like, Ever.’”
It has been too long. Now let me just skip over that horrendous come-on by Tyler at the end. Blech!
+/Plus/Addition/Crucifix by Ed Sheeran
I felt a little guilty listening to Ed Sheeran’s + for the first time, on one hand because I figured this thing was made primarily for lovestruck girls and on another because I felt like I was cheating on Lindsey Stirling. If I were ever to turn coat on my biological calling and reap the associated benefits of Pride that come from choosing to deny my naturally ordained sex, then I’d probably do it for Ed Sheeran before anyone else. I assume this not because he’s a blazing model of masculine beauty; by all counts, including his own, Ed is a rather funny-looking, perenially unkempt, and lavishly tattooed dude who under any usual circumstances would have a tough time getting a girl to woo him, let alone several thousand of them. “I’m happy the majority of the world doesn’t look like me because maybe less people would be getting laid,” he reckons. Likely so, and I speak as one so tremulous about his own complexion as to hide it behind a computer-generated space marine helmet. Wherefore, then, cometh the corny and ill-considered moniker “Ginger Jesus”? Unlike Sheeran, Jesus never sours his psalms with swear words to communicate his fury or impatience with mankind, nor does Jesus deliberately drape his poetry in references to drinking, drugs, and debauchery. Unlike Jesus, who instructed the prostitute to go forth and sin no more, Sheeran not only forgives the sinner but enables and abets him in continuing his sinful ways, having written several tunes behind the scenes for that most godforsaken abomination against music called One Direction.
All these things considered and only these things, it’s frankly inconceivable how so many (female) people could become so enamored of a guy who seems to exemplify everything that’s hastening the downfall of society. Maybe it’s his productivity they admire. Unlike yours truly, who’s slacking from real work in the very act of writing this critique, Ed has been restlessly testing his human limits for most of the last ten years. Ever since seeing Damien Rice in concert and picking up a guitar at 11, he had been self-publishing and selling albums on the street as a homeless teenager while playing hundreds of nightly gigs across the U.K. to spread his name. In a move that must have brought his parents either great distress or great relief, Ed dropped out school and left his parents’ coop at 16 to make a full-time job of recording, performing gigs, and “selling CDs from [his] rucksack, aiming for the majors,” as he sputters in the autobiographical rap You Need Me I Don’t Need You. “People think I’m bound to blow up / I’ve done around about a thousand shows, but / I haven’t got a house plus I live on the couch, / so you believe the lyrics when I’m singing them out…” In 2009 alone, legend holds that Ed racked up a total of 312 gigs, “playing a different show every night in front of a new crowd” and accumulating a following mainly by word of mouth and several, broadly viewed stints for online music channels. It wasn’t until he impulsively bought a ticket to Los Angeles at 19 (based on but a single contact, no less) and drew the attention of Jamie Foxx that his music began to gain traction outside of the various clubs he entertained. Granting Sheeran free reign of his mansion’s recording studio may just have been the only worthwhile thing Foxx has accomplished in his life, as it led to the singer getting picked up by Elton John’s management company which led to an eventual contract with Atlantic Records which led to his debut album + and to enough legions of raving fangirls that he could conceivably subsist on merchandising sales alone. “The game’s over, but now I’m on a new level. / Watch how I step on the track without a loop pedal.” And yet he’s still lugging the loop pedal around for live shows, where he’s lately begun to incorporate precious few of the approximately 120 songs he claims to have written last year for his follow-up album X, currently en route to my residence.
From all the practice he’s accrued over the years, Ed has grown into unquestionably one of the world’s best solo acts, effortlessly orchestrating complex arrangements on the spot complete with bass and drum lines using just his acoustic guitar and the occasional beatboxing. He’s also a masterful crowd manipulator, rallying his audiences into makeshift choirs to amplify the more tribal, monotonous chanting sections that pervade a few of his songs. Another feature of his live shows is their extraordinary length; what songs only lasted 4-5 minutes in their recorded versions he’ll often elongate to 9 or 10 by adding furious guitar solos and extra verses, jumbling the instrumentation of certain parts, and raising or softening his voice above the standard for dramatic effect.
Perhaps it’d be more accurate to reason that Ed reduces his 9-10 minute songs for the final album cuts. After all, the stage is truly where he’s most in his element, singing and playing more passionately as well as maintaining a closer link to the audience than a digitally mastered and professionally produced track could possibly allow. The biggest letdown with + as a studio album is precisely that it’s a studio album, offering markedly inferior or at least disappointingly conventional, band-supported versions of music that really sounds most poignant and visceral when performed solely by the artist who wrote it and how he wrote it – of music that in most cases you unfortunately can’t buy anywhere or listen to unless you have internet access or a concert ticket. Then again, that the album withholds his very best renditions at least provides a compelling incentive to go watch Ed perform live, which is more than you can say of most records which strive to attain perfection upon completion.
Anyway, the degree to which Jake Gosling’s production/programming aids or detracts largely depends on whether it complements the base acoustic components of Sheeran’s artistry or obscures them. Give Me Love, for example, benefits nicely from some backing strings and a sweeping bridge, normally severed from live shows, in which Ed is basically moaning and screaming, “Love me!” in desperation. It’s an inclusion that makes you feel both uncomfortable and vulnerable, much as the singer’s leering wails for love do in the live recording. Lego House trades some introductory ooohohs for a bit of a real piano and a lot of fake drums but ends up working all the same. On the other hand, older tracks like The City, a vivid and painterly portrait of homeless life in London, and the aforementioned You Need Me are woefully disserviced by annoying electronic bloops and percussional walls that nearly block out the original guitar (though the live recordings of both these are obtainable by legal means).
But none of this is a comment on the music itself. In reality, Sheeran is one of the most stylistically versatile and nonconformist singer-songwriters of our day, continually bridging the wide expanse between folk, pop, and what rappers like to call “hip-hop” because their real designation has always borne something of a negative connotation. So it had for me until I heard this plucky white European guy’s blasphemous take on the “black art form”, the artistic value of which I would have vehemently disputed in the past. Ed’s rap is less like the talky rhyme too often associated with the genre and more like lyrical poetry, arrayed with alliteration, internal rhyme, and metaphorical language while being genuinely sung rather than simply spoken or yelled, as the “best rapper of all time” Eminem is so prone to doing. More than that, though, his verses actually relate stories with broader meaning than getting drunk, getting high, and getting girls in bed, though he certainly doesn’t mask over his aptitude in the first habit (the redundancy of alluding to alcohol and crack in half of the album’s twelve songs may be one of his weaker techniques as a writer). You Need Me, I Don’t You is perhaps the most biographical and adaptable of all his songs, detailing his rise from a roaming, desperate busker to his present-day reputation as a British star, and one who’s been pressured by labels to marginalize his artistry for a more marketable sound. A daunting and narcissistic tour-de-force in the very best sense, it’s undergone numerous revisions since its stripped-down debut on an EP back in 2009, reflecting Ed’s changing fortunes and accumulating new stanzas, guitar solos, and even superior, surprisingly contextual covers of rap lines from 50 Cent and his own cousin (“Plus I keep my last name forever, keep this genre pretty basic / gonna be breaking into people’s tunes when I chase it / and replace it with the elephant in the room with a facelift / into another rapper’s shoes using new laces”). Even in the abbreviated album version, it’s a tightly and wittily written plea, nay, a searing demand for independence and integrity in a business that ardently suppresses each. “I won’t stay put – give me the chance to be free / Suffolk sadly seems to sort of suffocate me,” he spews before seguing into the abrasively headstrong chorus that lends the song its title.
If You Need Me is Ed’s biggest act of rebellion against tradition and the musical mainstream, then songs like The A-Team and Small Bump are definitely more conservative, folksy songs, though their subject matter is anything but cheery. The former, written in tribute to a woman Ed met at a homeschool shelter at a time when he admits he was rather naïve about the real world, is chiefly an empathy song but deftly veils its grim story of a drug-addicted prostitute with symbolic words (“In a pipe she flies to the motherland”), fragmented phrases (“White lips, pale face / breathing in snowflakes / burnt lungs, sour taste…”), and a sing-songy, rhyme-ridden beat that effectively lured radio stations in droves. Small Bump, on the other hand, is hands down the most alternately beautiful and deeply tragic ode to an unborn child – “a scan of my unmade plans”, he addresses it directly – ever written, if the only one. To give away the twist would blunt its impact, but the song more than demonstrates Sheeran’s keen intellect for writing moving narratives, here based on the experience of a once expecting friend. Whether intended that way or not, it’s also a bold and unflinching appeal for us to respect the life, the humanity of those youngest souls among us, those most cruelly and commonly beaten to the wayside by social pragmatists who would deny the sanctity of any person’s rights in the eye of our Creator.
Contrary to what Sheeran himself might suggest in concerts, + isn’t an oppressively depressing or dark album, successively managing lighter moments on U.N.I., a rapid-fire but soft-spoken acoustic rap about his girlfriend’s decision to leave for college, Grade 8, a simile-laden and funky love ditty built around the comparison of a muse to a minstrel “strumming on my heartstrings”, and Wake Me Up, a highly personal, slow-crawling, almost stream-of-consciousness meditation that Ed confesses he wrote “in a very drunken state” and many have maligned for its seemingly spontaneous cultural references like “I know you love Shrek, ’cause we watched it twelve times, but maybe you’re hoping for a fairy tale too…” I have also watched Shrek something like twelve times, and appreciate the song accordingly for sharing its author’s excellent taste with such vivid honesty. Lego House is another happy song that demonstrates the variability of Sheeran’s voice, which can weave between rappy fast-singing and soulful crooning with the same remarkable control and ease he calls upon when potently leaping and diving several notes. In this his second most-played song (before Sing, anyway), his voice climbs to a passionate cry in the bridge, shouting out, “I think the braces are breaking, and it’s more than I can take!” before abruptly dropping to a gentle intonation. Drunk is another enjoyably rhythmic if none too prudent account of Ed’s propensity for drowning his loneliness away in drink.
But in spite of Sheeran’s prowess at relating light-hearted, upbeat stories from his life, the strength of + lies chiefly in its drama. The haunting and – dare I say – epic closer Give Me Love is a minimally worded but musically lush masterwork of sexual longing that leans almost entirely on the singer’s ability not just to mimic but to feel and palpably channel emotion in their performance. Oft covered but never equaled, it’s a lingering lyric carried by poetic simplicity and the passionate sincerity of the original artist’s vocals, leaving me no difficulties declaring it one of the best songs of all time.
I hesitate to use the word “genius” in reference to Ed Sheeran; such a designation, after all, has been worn so thin it now reeks of cliché. The man probably said it best when he wrote, “My mind is a warrior; my heart is a foreigner.” His lyrics are infused with a cutting wit, his guitar draws an orchestral depth of sound, and his voice wields a sweeping range of expression. He’s a sinner unabashed to verbalize his sin, a lover with touching tongue, and an innovator amid a culture that incentivizes sterility. He’s not the Second Coming by any means, but damned if he can’t redeem modern pop and hip-hop from their self-determined path of condemnation.
Reluctant heartthrob Sam Woolf says, “I can and have watched this video 100 times and am still as amazed as I was the first time I watched it.” … Agreed. A caveat: there’s one F-word at the end if you care about that sort of thing, and it’s not “family” or “friendly”, though it’s probably the best application of the word ever in a song.
If you have a recommendation for where we direct the Podcast next, please leave a one-three sentence review of the Why You Gotta Be So Ruuuude, I’m Gonna Marry Her Anyway song in the comments section. I’ll take the most amusing critics’ wishes into account, although I’m not leaving any options off the table and my cabinet will be looking at a range of possible actions. Likewise, you readers can’t just load a banquet of favorite artists on a credit card and stick me with the bill.