Tuesday 26 September 2017

It's Ed Sheeran and the battle of the blands - where's the magical gold-dust with today's stars?

Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, Adele et al may be popular - but they're also unfailingly dull. Great music is not the preserve of the past, but it has been pushed further to the margins, laments our music critic

Ed Sheeran concert at the 3Arena. Picture: Damien Eagers
Ed Sheeran concert at the 3Arena. Picture: Damien Eagers
Playing to the masses: Ed Sheeran on stage at the 3Arena in Dublin earlier this week. Photo: Damien Eagers
Sam Smith paid royalties for hit songs
Adele swept the board at the Grammys with five wins
Ed Sheeran concert at the 3Arena. Picture: Damien Eagers
Adele
Ed Sheeran concert at the 3Arena. Picture: Damien Eagers
Kodaline are being lined up to headline one of three concerts being planned for Malahide Castle this year
Singer Adele during The 59th GRAMMY Awards at STAPLES Center on February 12, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS)
Sam Smith performs his nominated song, "Writings on the Wall," at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
John Meagher

John Meagher

It has been impossible to escape Ed Sheeran and his big, smiley face this week.

The stupendously popular tunesmith played a pair of shows in Dublin's 3Arena on Wednesday and Thursday, but such is his apparent stranglehold over Ireland that he could easily have sold out 10 consecutive gigs at the venue - and then travelled around the country to take his show to a cow-shed near you.

But even if you were nowhere near the former Point Depot, you would likely have seen rhapsodic socials media posts about how "aaaaaaaaamazing" his performances were or stumbled across yet another article parsing his love life or explaining to us just how much he loves the Irish. He's recorded a song as Gaeilge! He's one of us!

Sheeran is the epitome of the nice lad done good. You'll find nobody with a bad word to say about him, as I discovered when I spoke to several people of his acquaintance for an extensive profile in this newspaper on the eve of his sold-out Croke Park show of 2015.

Ed Sheeran concert at the 3Arena. Picture: Damien Eagers
Ed Sheeran concert at the 3Arena. Picture: Damien Eagers

Even my fellow critics seemed unwilling to put in the knife. "He's such a nice guy," one said, recalling an interview he had done with the singer. "And he knows how to write catchy songs."

But since when has being a sound bloke been reason enough to put away the critical cudgels? And, the catchy songs thing... well the Stock Aiken Waterman hit factory knew about those, too, but few (rightly) run to their defence.

Let's be honest about Ed Sheeran here: he's everywhere because he delivers safe, hummable pop music that works in vast arenas and because he's every bit as popular with baby-boomers as he is with millennials. There's nothing 'difficult' or challenging about what he does and his lyrical preoccupations are unlikely to offend anyone. He's not the worst lyricist in the world, but he has yet to deliver a rhyming couplet that weaves a snare.

This week he had to settle a plagiarism case out of court - his alleged crime? Ripping off a song released by terminally dull X Factor winner Matt Cardle. Jeez.

Right now, he's busy touring Divide. Released last month, it's done phenomenal business, shifting more than one million copies in its first fortnight and, to date, selling more than half-a-million units in the US. Those are the sort of numbers the industry took for granted for its biggest names in those long ago pre-internet days. It's an album that's very professionally put together, but you'll struggle to find any heart in it. What's not in question is how many boxes have been ticked: there are songs with a retro feel, others with an urban edge, and others still with a Celtic influence (including the toe-curlingly hokey 'Galway Girl', which his Irish fans seem to have embraced).

It's like Sheeran and his team have done everything they can to make the album appeal to as many people as possible. Such a ploy is by no means unusual, but when there's little to excite beneath the surface, it's hard not to think of Divide as a cynical exercise in making people part with their money, particularly those who buy just one or two albums a year.

Singer Adele during The 59th GRAMMY Awards at STAPLES Center on February 12, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS)
Singer Adele during The 59th GRAMMY Awards at STAPLES Center on February 12, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS)

Then there's Sheeran's Everyman shtick, which flies in the face of the aloof glamour that has long been rock's stock in trade. Everything from his fondness for plaid shirts to those seemingly impromptu visits to fans' houses to play special gigs smacks of someone who's terribly 'nice', but clearly divorced from the pop-as-escapism idea.

Could you imagine Prince rocking up to play a gig in clothes that could be bought in Penneys or David Bowie turning up at the door of his biggest fan, guitar in hand? Among the outpouring of tributes for both men last year was the sense that such exotic specimens - who had connected with the masses in their own way - had been replaced by musicians whose greatest boast is how ordinary they are.

Where's the magical gold-dust to today's biggest names, particularly those from the UK? They're certainly not numbered among the Sam Smiths and Adeles of this world. Both have become universally popular by essentially releasing the same song over and over again. The latter is the biggest-selling British act of the century, and she's got an exceptional voice, but latest album 25 is simply a rehash of what she's done before. And that goes for the vocal gymnastics, too.

Amy Winehouse also had a remarkable pair of lungs, but her recorded legacy is far superior. There was an edge to her songs that Adele's karaoke tunes lack, and the lady herself had little interest in spouting niceties (although, in fairness to Adele, she is no media trick-pony either).

The Irish seem to have a greater tolerance for bland music than most and this country has produced its fair share of big-name duds. One need only think of The Script, a band whose raison d'etre has always seemed to be as big as possible - although their desperation to run before they could walk was painfully obvious when they played Croke Park a few years ago.

I expressed similar misgivings about Kodaline around the release of their first album and was chided for not supporting Irish music - as if a band fond of big emotions and empty sentiments should be subject to the sort of cheer-leading one might bestow on a football team.

Sam Smith performs his nominated song,
Sam Smith performs his nominated song, "Writings on the Wall," at the Oscars on Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Sadly, some of the least interesting music coming out of Ireland right now is also its most popular. Walking on Cars have favoured a blunderbuss approach with their strident, U2-lite anthems while Co Kildare-trio Picture This have been selling out venues like Dublin's Olympia before they've even released an album on the back of a batch of ghastly pop-folk tunes and old-fashioned word-of-mouth. It's difficult to listen to any of their recent singles and not feel despair for those cloth-eared souls who bleat glowingly about them on Facebook.

None of this is to suggest that music was any better in the past - great music is released every single week now, but the difference is it tends to be in the margins whereas it used to take centre-stage. There seems to be a greater tolerance for homogeneous pap among the masses nowadays than there ever was before - safe, sanitised, corporate fare like Ed Sheeran's Divide and the new generation of dire Country 'n' Irish proponents who brought their ear-ache muzak to last night's Late Late special (which will have attracted its biggest audience of the year to date). It's big, bland and boring - and it's a sign of the times.

CULTURE SHOT

Peter Silberman

Friday at the Unitarian Church, Dublin

Over the course of three albums, Brooklyn trio the Antlers distinguished themselves as one of the most intriguing new American bands. Their first album, the wonderfully atmospheric Hospice, was especially arresting thanks to its mediation on illness and death, and inspired by real-life events.

Kodaline are being lined up to headline one of three concerts being planned for Malahide Castle this year
Kodaline are being lined up to headline one of three concerts being planned for Malahide Castle this year

Now frontman Peter Silberman has his own impressive solo debut to showcase and the songs of Impermanence are likely to captivate in the intimate setting of this 19th-century church on St Stephen's Green.

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