It was a daunting mission: Like a busker, Sheeran performed solo, with a guitar and several loop pedals, showing off his instrumental skills and songcraft to a crowd that would top 50,000, some of whom were there only to see Sheeran (I saw people leaving after his set, mostly adults with a small horde of teenage girls in tow).
Sheeran seemed like an odd choice for the opening spot on a Rolling Stones tour, a mid-20-something pop star who writes catchy, gooey love songs that pander primarily to the tender, unjaded hearts of adolescent girls.
If you haven’t been paying close attention, however, you may not know that Sheeran has become one of the biggest and most popular pop stars on the planet.
Thursday, he will open his North American tour at the Sprint Center, a show that sold out faster than one of the 4-minute pop songs that fill “Divide,” his latest album, which streamed more than 250 million times the week it was released.
Sheeran’s skyrocketing success mystifies some observers for a few reasons, starting with his looks. He is not the typical pop heartthrob — no Justin Bieber or Justin Timberlake or John Mayer. He usually appears scruffy, a bit unkempt and not too concerned with fashion or style.
All of that, however, is part of his appeal: As he does in his music, he comes off as a guy in need of some attention, whether he’s recovering from another heartbreak or disappointment or pledging an undying love that is yet to be requited, things he writes about regularly and candidly.
Sheeran broke into the pop world in 2011, when he released his debut full-length “+” (read as “Plus”). The album would become one of the best-selling debut albums ever in the United Kingdom. It also attracted the attention of Taylor Swift in 2012, with whom he would soon collaborate and tour.
His first Kansas City appearance was a sold-out show at the Midland theater in February 2013. He was a resounding hit. From my review of the show:
“More than 2,500 people showed up for what was essentially a solo show: Sheeran with acoustic guitar. He had no backup band, just a bank of four dozen or so 3-foot-square video screens, which blared plenty of visual distractions and embellishments, and all the gadgets he needed to loop vocals and other instrumental/musical background sounds for his pop and folk tunes.
“If it all sounds lackluster on paper, well, you had to be there. The guy may look unassuming — a shaggy mop of disheveled red hair, T-shirt, blue jeans and whatever athletic shoes he favors — but he can whip a big crowd into a state of obedience and fervor with an uncanny ease. Maybe it’s the British accent and vernacular, which add a coat of charm and levity to his unwavering enthusiasm.
“Whatever it was, he was able to choreograph some impressive sing-alongs and crowd participation exercises several times. None topped the raucous sing-along he orchestrated for the chorus to ‘Be My Husband,’ a song made famous by Nina Simone.”
That night, he also covered “Poor Wayfaring Stranger” and the traditional folk song “The Parting Glass,” which is evidence of another trait that has contributed to Sheeran’s success. He is a bit of a music alchemist, a songwriter who explores and fuses many genres and does so seamlessly, without looking or sounding forced or phony.
Sheeran’s most recent album, “÷” (“Divide”), wrote New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica, “is a collection of maudlin spurned-lover jams, open-eared cross-genre collaborations and a bit of incensed rapping. Most pop stars of his success are too boxed into one aesthetic to pull off an album like this — for Mr. Sheeran, it’s all he knows.”
“Divide” features some rap, some dance music, a couple of Celtic folk/rock songs, some tropical/island and a song written in Twi, a dialect in Ghana, and recorded in Ghana with Afrobeats star Fuse ODG and producer Killbeatz.
In his review of “Divide,” Caramanica wrote: “Mr. Sheeran — in his best mode, this generation’s James Taylor, perhaps — can do this because he belongs to no scene, which allows him to dabble in a whole bunch of them, a genial visitor. Who else has collaborated with Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber, and also the Game and the grime don Wiley? It’s an impressive stylistic stretch, but Mr. Sheeran also makes use of that access. Which means that pinning him down is hard.”
It’s a risk that makes sense, if you can pull it off, especially if you’re targeting a demographic that is loyal to all genres or committed to none in particular. This elusiveness keeps Sheeran out of pigeonholes and ruts and gives him wide berth to indulge in experiments and surprises.
Lyrically, Sheeran is less gifted. He can get trite and cliched, regularly casting himself as the guy done wrong. From “Save Myself,” a track from “Divide”:
“Life can get you down so I just numb the way it feels / I drown it with a drink and out-of-date prescription pills / And all the ones that love me they just left me on the shelf / No farewell / So before I save someone else, I’ve got to save myself.”
He can get sentimental, too, as in “Supermarket Flowers,” an elegy and valediction for his grandmother:
“You were an angel in the shape of my mum / When I fell down you’d be there holding me up / Spread your wings as you go / When God takes you back he’ll say ‘Hallelujah, you’re home.’ ”
Like Mayer, Sheeran likes to sing his praises for women, expressing his love, lust and infatuation. His song “Shape of You” (the video has more than 1.5 billion views on YouTube) feels like a more lascivious remake of Mayer’s “Your Body Is a Wonderland”:
“I’m in love with the shape of you / We push and pull like magnets do / Although my heart is falling, too / I’m in love with your body /And last night you were in my room / And now my bedsheets smell like you.”
Sheeran’s music has been noticed by other songwriters, most notably Paul McCartney and Van Morrison, both of whom have expressed their fondness for his songs, and Elton John, who has become his mentor.
That’s a gaudy place to inhabit for a young songwriter whose fame baffled even himself for a while, leading, he has admitted, to a bout of heavy drinking. In a piece for The Ringer, critic Rob Harvilla wrote about Sheeran:
“Sheeran is, himself, extremely famous, and successful enough at this point that he can crow about his plans to outsell Adele and not sound totally delusional. But he doesn’t quite play the part, or, OK, look the part. An overdog in an underdog’s shabby clothing.
“Which makes him dangerous, a wee bit disingenuous, and susceptible to the same burnout pitfalls that have waylaid most of his competition. He is a sensitive, romantical, ambitious gentleman in his mid-20s, commanding unimaginable fame and influence, who believes himself to be both the Conquering Hero and the Nice, Normal, Down-to-Earth Guy. Perhaps that’s who he really is, but the danger is that he will continue to believe that even if, for some reason, it transpires one day that he is not, not anymore.”
Sheeran seems less prone to a fall from grace than Britney Spears or Bieber, whose fame consumed them while they were still teenagers. His down-to-earthiness seems genuine, and his will to explore new terrains seems real, even if it feels contrived at times. At this point, his career trajectory appears to be nothing but up and away.
The June 29 show at Sprint Center will be his sixth appearance in Kansas City, including two opening gigs for Swift in August 2013. His 2014 headlining show at the Sprint Center drew almost 8,000 fans — more than triple the crowd that saw him at the Midland. Thursday’s crowd will be double that, a significant jump in less than two years.
Don’t be surprised if his next show in Kansas City is back at Arrowhead, and he’s the headliner.
Ed Sheeran performs Thursday at the Sprint Center. James Blunt opens. Show time is 7:30 p.m. sprintcenter.com. The show is sold out.