Ed Sheeran has been compared to tofu, to a sponge, to microbes, and to other ubiquitous inoffensive things that take on the qualities of what’s around them. He strums and sings humbly about missing his hometown chip shop, and few observers have an airtight explanation of why that’s resulted in one of the most dominant pop careers ever. On Spotify, he has more followers than any other artist; his third release, Divide, was 2017’s most popular album; his newest, No. 6 Collaborations Project, will likely debut at No. 1.
Given his success, maybe it’s time to rethink the idea of Sheeran as filler. Or at least it’s time to recognize that if he’s tofu, he’s a specific kind—medium-firm, lightly seasoned, maybe. No. 6 Collaborations Project is, per its title, all collaborations with other musicians, yet Sheeran’s essential Sheeran-ness persists through its Spanglish seduction attempt with Camila Cabello to its closing instance of Jimi Hendrix karaoke, featuring Chris Stapleton and Bruno Mars. How to describe the patented feeling that only this 28-year-old Suffolk folkie can conjure?
Maybe start with the voice. Sheeran is versatile with his raspy tenor, able to pull off both falsetto weepiness and singing-comedian patter. But across various kinds of songs, there’s one recurring feature: strain. He’ll start from a place of seeming to not try too hard, and then swing into trying very hard—a groan or moan or crack or yell or some other not-singing-ism that still conveys the tune. In the chorus of his hit 2017 anthem “Castle on the Hill,” you can see the spit flying as he vows, “I’m on my way!” For the No. 6 Collaborations Project opener “Beautiful People,” the chorus sees him yelp the title as if it’s a curse to the gods, and then follow it with a mellow, prayerful refrain.