Adopting the old-fashioned route to success by playing a grueling 300 gigs in 2009 alone, Ed Sheeran's blend of singer/songwriter balladry and acoustic hip-hop has built up quite the fan base, ensuring his debut full-length album, simply titled Plus, is one of the most hotly anticipated releases of the year. Unfortunately, it's the former, rather than the latter, which dominates the follow-up to his grime-inspired introductory No.5 Collaborations Project EP. Indeed, the unexpected hugely popular response to lead single "The A Team," an achingly tender tale of a heroin-addicted prostitute (think a socially aware James Blunt) seems to have thrown him off course, as rather than pursue the more urban direction that set him apart from his contemporaries, the majority of Plus' 12 tracks feel like self-conscious attempts to replicate its sound. The sparse piano chords and stream-of-consciousness delivery ("I knew you loved Shrek cos we've watched it twelve times") of "Wake Me Up," the gentle percussion and lilting piano hooks of "Small Bump," and the melancholic wistful folk of "This" are all melodic, Damien Rice-esque numbers that would no doubt go down like a storm on one of the many open-mike nights Sheeran used to frequent. But for an artist who has built up a reputation for his inventive fusion of sounds, they are disappointingly back-to-basics affairs which offer little that hasn't been heard before. However, Sheeran is a much more interesting prospect when his unassuming manner is accompanied by an array of skittering hip-hop beats and staccato R&B licks. "You Don't Need Me, I Don't Need You" is a blistering swipe at the music industry which shows that while he may not have the conventional image of a rapper, he certainly possesses the quick-witted attitude; "U.N.I." combines Snow Patrol-esque guitar hooks with a breakneck-speed delivery reminiscent of Craig David's early 2000s output; while some dirty, scuzzy guitars and electronic bleeps are thrown into the mix on "The City," which deals with his experience of moving from his hometown of to the bright lights of London. With his casual jeans and hoodie, and relatable tales of relationship woes, university, and getting drunk, it's easy to see why Sheeran has struck such a chord with the late-teens/early-twenties crowd. But his debut's failure to capitalize on his unique selling point means it's likely to leave everyone else nonplussed. ~ Jon O'Brien
Entertainment Weekly (p.64) - "[He's] mostly distinguished by the hip-hop elements he injects into his sensitive-guy strumming." -- Grade: B+
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