I’m not sure what to make of this oddity, which brings British rapper Devlin and Ed Sheeran together to modernize Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” Based on the mediocre rap melded onto the memorable original’s chorus, I’d have to say this is the cover that broke the camel’s back. Maybe it would sound better had producer Labrinth not elected to muddy Sheeran’s passable solo work underneath a crushing wall of Travis Barker-esque percussion. But based on the rest of Devlin’s singles catalog, perhaps this is one rapper who should forget about jumping the pond, especially if this is the best he can do.
I can be forgiven for being a bit late to the party when it comes to singing Ed Sheeran’s praises, but that’s only because I’m not particularly plugged into U.K. pop trends. But I’ll be damned if Sheeran’s blend of pop, hip-hop and blues isn’t something that’s quickly winning a battle with my headphones, and it’s success he’s earned by fighting the hard way — touring, touring, touring, then writing his own songs to make those touring dates pay off. Bob Lefsetz just wrote a glowing recommendation today, which is how I stumbled onto “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You,” which sounded a bit too much like a cross between David Ford’s “State of the Union” and any Jason Mraz track. But I dug deeper, and the more I heard of Sheeran, the more hooked I became.
His first single, “The A Team,” defies all genre predictions, building on a light folk melody of guitar and vocals, painting a beautiful lyrical picture of a woman’s life wrecked by desperation and drugs, as she clings to her daydreams which seem to waste away by the minute. It’s a pop song for people who think they hate pop songs, people who are so jaded they think anything “pop” has to be synonymous with “facile.”
Then there’s also “Lego House” (starring Harry Potter’s own Rupert Grint) which speaks of “pick[ing] up the pieces and build[ing] a lego house … if things go wrong I can knock it down.” It’s a fitting metaphor for building a relationship, which requires a willingness to fail in order to build things back even stronger than before. “I’ll do it all for you in time,” he sings. “I think I love you better now.” It’s a beautiful pop melody anchored by tremors of piano meted against staccato hip-hop percussion and Sheeran’s powerful vocals. Knowing that he’s a product of his own hard work, not the brainchild of a heartless, mindless corporate groupthink mentality makes the music all the more resonant.
The coup de grace is the solo arrangement of “Wayfaring Stranger,” recorded for his “One Take EP” … built on a series of loops and layers, everything here is recorded on the spot, and the raw emotion of the session pours through every second of the recording. If you can listen to this and not want to hear more from this artist on the rise, you’ve got no musical soul. I’m not sure that Sheeran will be the biggest star in the U.S. by April, as Lefsetz surmises … I’ve been burned way too many times trying to predict which artists will successfully make the cross-Atlantic trip intact (to be honest, I never thought Adele would even catch on with our fickle-minded pop tastes.) But I can say with certainty he deserves to reach a wider audience here in the States.
It only takes one listen, and you’ll spend the rest of the day diving back in for more.