Ed Sheeran aims to please

He gives the Sta­ples crowd what it wants, but he doesn’t al­ways nour­ish him­self.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - MIKAEL WOOD POP MU­SIC CRITIC

Ed Sheeran was about half­way through his briskly paced con­cert Thurs­day night at Sta­ples Cen­ter — the first of three this week for the Bri­tish singer and song­writer be­hind the big­gest al­bum of 2017 — when he took a mo­ment to let the ca­pac­ity crowd in on his cre­ative process.

The next song he wanted to play, he said, was one of the last he wrote for “÷” (pro­nounced “di­vide”), which was re­leased in March and has moved more than

2 mil­lion sales-and-stream­ing units in the United States, ac­cord­ing to Nielsen Mu­sic.

Af­ter the record came out, Sheeran dis­cov­ered that “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here” wasn’t get­ting as much at­ten­tion as other tunes on “÷,” in­clud­ing the proudly an­themic “Cas­tle on the Hill” and “Shape of You,” the slinky club hit that topped Bill­board’s Hot 100 for months.

As a re­sult, he didn’t play the acous­tic bal­lad much once he got on the road — at least until he chose to do it one fate­ful night. And guess what hap­pened?

“It got a good re­ac­tion,” Sheeran re­vealed. So now he per­forms it ev­ery so of­ten, as he did Thurs­day. Wow — cool story, bro. Sheeran’s coolly trans­ac­tional think­ing about “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here” is in­dica­tive of pop’s most cal­cu­lat­ing mind. The 26-year-old singer emerged at the be­gin­ning of the decade as some­thing of an odd­ity: a fuzzy-headed folkie given to hy­per­ac­tive rap­ping whose live act con­sisted of just him, a gui­tar and a bank of loop­ing ped­als.

But he soon found huge suc­cess, duet­ting with Tay­lor Swift and earn­ing a Grammy nomination for song of the year for “The A Team,” a gen­tle weeper from his de­but al­bum, “+.”

Since then he has worked with de­lib­er­a­tion to deepen his foothold, and he’s hardly been coy about his strat­egy. Speak­ing to a re­porter re­cently, Sheeran said he recorded a pair of Ir­ish-ac­cented dit­ties for “÷” be­cause he thought they’d ful­fill an un­met de­mand in the mar­ket­place.

Which isn’t a ter­ri­ble (or novel) rea­son to make a pop song. In his best ma­te­rial, Sheeran matches his crowd­pleas­ing in­stinct with a melodic flair and an at­ten­tion to lyri­cal de­tail in a way that lifts the mu­sic above mere util­ity. “Nancy Mul­li­gan,” one of those Ir­ish tunes, uses a ready-made ar­range­ment to tell a poignant tale about how Sheeran’s grand­par­ents de­fied their fam­i­lies in or­der to marry.

Like all great pop, the song demon­strates that work­ing for one­self and work­ing for an au­di­ence aren’t mu­tu­ally ex­clu­sive — that, in­deed, a sweet spot ex­ists at the over­lap of the two.

At Sta­ples Cen­ter, where he was still per­form­ing as a one-man band, Sheeran hit that sweet spot in a spir­ited “Cas­tle on the Hill” — with its warm rec­ol­lec­tion of his wasted youth in the English coun­try­side — and in “Nancy Mul­li­gan,” in which he seemed to take real plea­sure as he repli­cated the stu­dio ver­sion’s fid­dle and bodhrán parts with only the strings and body of his acous­tic gui­tar.

“Think­ing Out Loud,” his Grammy-win­ning slow jam, was strong too, even if its ubiq­uity at wed­dings has changed its value in Sheeran’s mind. Watch­ing him sing it here, you could tell how se­ri­ously he takes the re­spon­si­bil­ity of do­ing a song that means so much to peo­ple; “Think­ing Out Loud” is about their sto­ries now, not just his — clearly a mov­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of its own for a song­writer as am­bi­tious as Sheeran.

Be­yond those high­lights, though, too much of Thurs­day’s con­cert had the feel of obli­ga­tion, as though the singer were sat­is­fy­ing his fans but not him­self. And, yeah, there’s an ad­mirable qual­ity to that mis­sion, which went over well enough among the thou­sands at Sta­ples Cen­ter who’d turned up to re­live mem­o­ries to a live sound­track.

But crafty songs like “Dive” and “Sing” seemed to be ac­com­plish­ing noth­ing for the du­ti­ful red-haired man on­stage, while a dull cover of “Feel­ing Good” — the way-over­done mid-’60s show tune re­vived by ev­ery­one from Michael Bublé to the Pussy­cat Dolls — just left you feel­ing sorry for a very smart song­writer who’d surely have pre­ferred to sing some­thing else.

At least it got a good re­ac­tion.

Wally Skalij Los Angeles Times

ED SHEERAN per­forms the first of three con­certs sched­uled at Sta­ples Cen­ter.

Wally Skalij Los Angeles Times

FANS re­act to Ed Sheeran’s per­for­mance Thurs­day at Sta­ples Cen­ter. He re­leased an al­bum in March.

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