“Before I was signed in 2011, I made an EP called No.5 Collaborations Project. Since then, I’ve always wanted to do another, so I started No.6 on my laptop when I was on tour last year.” So wrote Ed Sheeran on Instagram in May, announcing his latest album, No. 6 Collaborations Project. I winced.
We do not need another boring, cringe-inducing Ed Sheeran album that somehow manages to sell half a million copies in its first week. Even less one that supposedly returns him to his humble, underdog roots. But now, No. 6 Collaborations Project is here and there’s no escaping the vice-like chokehold it will have on the charts.
There’s an insincerity to the record, in both its premise and it’s deliberately understated title, announcing Sheeran’s intentions to hark back to his lowly beginnings. No. 5, the last EP he released before he was signed to Asylum Records eight years ago, featured Wiley, Devlin, P Money, Ghetts and Jme – not small names in grime. It was no small-fry project even then, no matter how hard Sheeran tries to pretend it was.
The slippery concept of “authenticity” has long been a key element of Sheeran’s shaggy-haired, acoustic brand – but if he’s aiming for genuine authenticity with this record, he’s failed there too. In a line-up, it’d be hard to make Sheeran out among the starry lights of those who feature on the record, so A-list is the talent he now rubs shoulders with. He’s joined by Stormzy, Justin Bieber, Cardi B, Skrillex, Eminem, 50 Cent, Camila Cabello, Bruno Mars, J Hus and Dave, a wild assortment of big-name international artists, most of whom (really, all but Bieber) make music far more innovative than Sheeran’s. The only hope is that the myriad experiences, styles and ranges these artists bring to the record will swamp Sheeran’s usual one-note drone.
It’s a real achievement, then, that this record manages to remain so terrifically dull, against all odds. Sheeran’s lyrics are as embarrassingly juvenile as ever; his melodies retain the belligerent insistence that will hear them played on dance floors across the world.
“She got the – mmm – brown eyes, caramel thighs, long hair, no wedding ring”, begins Sheeran on the vaguely tropical-infused “South of the Border”, with Camila Cabello and Cardi B. It’s the first in a long line of trite descriptions of the women of Sheeran’s desire. (As a side note, the clumsy insertion of “mmms” to make up syllables, four albums deep, is somewhat dispiriting.) If you fear, as I did, that he is singing to either featured artist as he gazes at these “caramel thighs”, you’ll be pleased to hear Cabello isn’t having any of it. “He got the – mmm – green eyes,” she responds: a close inspection of photos of Sheeran suggests his are blue. Thankfully, Cabello and Cardi seem to have escaped feigning attraction to Sheeran.
Other lyrical gems include the list: “Star sign: gemini / Brown eyes, fair hair in the light” (“Way to Break My Heart”) and “My wife wears red, but looks better without the lipstick” (from “Remember the Name”), an oddly backhanded compliment that also seems to suggest Sheeran believes all red clothing comes with a free matching lip product.
By collaborating with musicians who work in more diverse genres than his own, Sheeran implies he has an awareness of musical styles beyond his faux-soul vocals and folky guitar. But he falls short of being able to convincingly try on these other genres. He still doesn’t seem to have got his head around grime, joining Stormzy on “Take Me Back To London” to sing “I wanna try new things, they just want me to sing / Because nobody thinks I write rhymes / And now I’m back in the biz with my guys”, as if just by writing a couple of rap-leaning lines that (almost?) rhyme, he’s ditched his acoustic-pop cape to become a grime MC. After Stormzy took his otherwise stellar Glastonbury headline set to low levels by covering Sheeran’s “Shape Of You” two weeks ago, hearing the pair join together feels just as uneasy. All the two men have in common is their chart success and the fact they’ve both headlined Glastonbury: something Sheeran points out before dropping the cringiest humble brag of all: “Grossed half a billi’ on the Divide tour / Yes, I ain’t kidding, what would I lie for?”
It’s one thing to brag about your ridiculous earnings on a song supposedly about how down to earth you are (the lyrics mostly relate how dear Ed still finds time in his hectic multimillionaire’s schedule to go to the pub with his mates) and quite another to sincerely use the word “billi”.
Sadly, this bragging doesn’t seem to be getting him anywhere in his personal life, either. “There ain’t no diamonds, silver or gold / That can replace a man’s love in our home”, he sings, quoting his wife, on “I Don’t Want Your Money”. Maybe he should take his own advice.