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+: Why Ed Sheeran’s Debut Album Was More Than The Sum Of Its Parts
In Depth

+: Why Ed Sheeran’s Debut Album Was More Than The Sum Of Its Parts

With his debut album, ‘+’, Ed Sheeran’s era-defining blend of folk-pop balladry and acoustic rap instantly turned him into a British icon.

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After announcing he’d signed a record deal with Asylum Records in early 2011, singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran was finally poised to introduce himself to the masses. Despite being just 20 years old, he’d already accrued an enormous social-media following, largely thanks to performing hundreds of live gigs across London and exponentially growing his fanbase with his folk-based songwriting and rap-inspired lyricism. By the time he came to release his debut album, +, the world was his for the taking.

Listen to ‘+’ here.

“I wanted to keep that organic, lo-fi feel”

Sheeran’s game plan had been remarkably effective. By issuing five self-released EPs as an independent artist, he had finally caught the attention of record-label bosses, and he was keen not to let this life-changing opportunity slip through his fingers. From the moment he first picked up a guitar, at age 11, after seeing Eric Clapton play Layla  at the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, making a record was everything Sheeran had been aiming for.

Settling in garden shed in Suffolk, in the East of England, Sheeran started work on + in January 2011, before graduating to the more advanced facilities of Sticky Studios in Surrey. The fledgling songwriter retained the services of producer Jake Gosling, who had masterminded his past EPs. “I wanted to keep that organic, lo-fi feel,” he told Q magazine. “I went in with pretty much all the songs written.” One of these songs, The A Team, written after he met a homeless prostitute called Angel at a crisis shelter, would eventually become Sheeran’s first UK Top 10 hit.

As a harrowing portrayal of Angel’s struggles with heroin addiction, The A Team was a heart-rending folk ballad that reflected the singer’s own personal distress at hearing the girl’s story first-hand (“She’s in the Class A Team/Stuck in her daydream”). In late April, Sheeran was invited to perform the song on BBC Two’s Later… With Jools Holland. “It was quite a weird thing, because it all happened at the last minute,” he said. “It was all live and it’s a big show to do.”

With Sheeran gaining mass exposure from appearing on national television, when The A Team was finally released as a single, on 12 June 2011, it became an instant success, selling 57,000 copies in its first week and peaking at No.3 in the UK. The music video featured actress Selina MacDonald bringing Angel’s tragic story to life in stark monochrome.

The second single lifted from his upcoming debut album was You Need Me, I Don’t Need You, a newly recorded version of the loop-pedal pop-rap showstopper that had gone viral on YouTube the previous year. Written when Sheeran was just 15, the song proved quite difficult to nail down in the studio. “That was done as a live SB.TV thing, and the energy and atmosphere of that track was what we wanted to capture,” producer Jake Gosling said. They finally got it right by enlisting fellow producer Charlie Hugall to help in chopping up some live drum loops. Upon its release as a single, on 26 August 2011, You Need Me, I Don’t Need You reached No.4 in the UK.

“Most of the songs on ‘+’ are love songs”

After grafting away on + for several months, and with two Top 5 UK hits already under his belt, the album was finally released on 9 September 2011. Effortlessly combining Sheeran’s gift for crafting pleasant pop melodies with his hyper-lyrical rap skills, + was a revelatory release that sold 102,000 copies in its first week and topped the UK album chart. By the end of the 2010s, it would be regarded as one of the most successful debut records of the decade.

“Most of the songs on + are love songs, written about my ex-girlfriend Alice,” Sheeran revealed. Most notable among these was U.N.I., a song written about the failure of a long-distance relationship after two lovers are torn apart when one goes to university. Another song inspired by Alice was Wake Me Up, which Sheeran wrote in Los Angeles while reflecting on the breakup. “It’s about all the quirky little things you miss when a relationship is over,” Sheeran wrote in his illustrated memoir, Ed Sheeran: A Visual Journey.

The third single from + was Lego House, a song Ed says is “about that moment in a relationship when you realise where it’s going, and you want to save it”. Using Lego as a metaphor for the assembly (and disassembly) of a love connection, the song is fondly remembered for its music video, which features Harry Potter star Rupert Grint as an obsessive stalker. “I went to school and obviously was a ginger kid,” Sheeran told Reuters, “so you’re obviously going to get the Ron Weasley comments at some point.”

When his latest single reached No.5 in the UK, Sheeran celebrated by buying himself an expensive Lego Star Wars Millennium Falcon set, and even got a yellow Lego head tattooed on his arm.

“I think a lot more people are wanting deeper music”

In February 2012, Ed Sheeran released Drunk, the fourth single from +, which went on to peak at No.9 in the UK. “Drunk got playlisted before we put it to radio, so we kind of had to go with that,” the singer said. The music video featured Sheeran visiting a nightclub in order to booze away his sorrows before heading home with a couple of girls and cavorting with some cats. As it happened, the cats were famous movie stars themselves – they had previously appeared in James Bond, Harry Potter and Pirates Of The Caribbean movies.

Sheeran was now reaping the benefits of all his hard work. Not only had his debut album gone three-times platinum in just a handful of months, but he also won Best British Male Solo Artist and Best British Breakthrough Act at the 2012 BRIT Awards. A few months later, The A Team won a prestigious Ivor Novello Award for Best Song Musically And Lyrically. Surprised at having beaten Adele’s Rolling In the Deep, Sheeran celebrated long into the evening: “I carried my award with me all night and stuck it on the counter of every single pub we went to.”

The fifth single from +, Small Bump, released in May 2012, saw the singer-songwriter tackle more mature lyrical subject matter, recounting the tear-jerking story of a miscarriage from the perspective of a young father. “I think a lot more people are wanting deeper music and lyrics and stories,” producer Jake Gosling said, “rather than another pop track singing about the club.” The single made yet another dent on the UK, peaking at No.25.

“I haven’t got used to the screams yet.”

Coming full circle on his journey from a little boy watching the Queen’s Golden Jubilee on TV, Sheeran was overjoyed when he was invited to play at the Diamond Jubilee concert in June 2012, held in front of Buckingham Palace. Appearing on a star-studded bill that featured music legends such as Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney, the rising star played a solo acoustic rendition of The A Team to a UK audience of 15 million people – possibly a billion when worldwide figures were taken into account. Proving that his debut album had elevated him to the echelons of pop royalty, he even shook hands with Her Majesty after the show.

The following month, Sheeran played a homecoming concert at Thetford Forest which he regarded as “one of the highlights of my career”. Deafened by the cries of 8,000 local fans, he admitted he was still coming to terms with being famous. “I haven’t got used to the screams yet,” Sheeran said in an interview with The Telegraph. “I’m not exactly boy-band material, am I?” Even today, he remains modest about his success. “I wasn’t the most marketable person,” he has said, noting that he was “never going to be marketed in the way that Beyoncé or Pixie Lott are. Record sales don’t have to rely on image.”

The final single to be released from + was Give Me Love, a personal favourite of Sheeran’s which recalls one of his early inspirations, Damien Rice, in its folky minimalism and sweepingly chanted refrain. Reaching No.18 in the UK, Sheeran capped off the promotional run for his debut album by performing the song during an episode of The X Factor. “It’s got a more fleshed-out sound,” he said of the track, “which I think is where I’m headed in the future.”

If there was one thing Sheeran didn’t lack by the end of 2012, it was love. His army of fans – nicknaming themselves “Sheerios” or “Sheeranators” – had propelled him to pop glory, and + had become a groundbreaking success. The album has since sold over seven million copies worldwide and remains one of the best-selling debut albums of the 2010s. Not only did it give Ed Sheeran his long-awaited – and ongoing – brush with fame, but it also saw him lay the musical foundation for his rise to becoming one of Britain’s finest pop songwriters.

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