Hello, and welcome to the first Radio Rant of the year! Today, we’re starting the year off ambitious with an acoustic double header!
This isn’t a true “song vs. song” competition as much as looking at one warm and fuzzy hit by an artist I’ve never heard of while also examining an artist I’ve never heard of’s warm and fuzzy hit. Folk group The Lumineers formed in the surprisingly distant year of 2005, but weren’t really a thing outside small venues until last y–I mean, 2011, when they signed with a management company when two managers saw them perform “Ho Hey” on YouTube. Their debut album followed, and then “Ho Hey” got big off buzz.
British bright boy Ed Sheeran’s been active for about the same amount of time, releasing a string of EPs and touring constantly before breaking big in Britain, where he’s won a number of accolades and awards from 2011’s album + and singles like “The A Team”.
I thought today I’d look at these songs together because the artists are similar, and the songs are well, both good, but also show the two kinds of acoustic songs that always show up on the pop charts. Let’s start alphabetically with “The A Team”.
“The A Team” is the “smartly written tragi-ballad” (think “Somebody That I Used To Know”), in this case about a girl who prostitutes herself out for drug money. Apparently prostitutes are a favorite subject for young British men. Anyway, the song’s strength is far and away it’s lyrics, with Sheeran tossing details to the woman’s life in deft lines like “Breathing in snowflakes“, “Burnt lungs, sour taste”, or “Call girl, no phone”. Apparently Sheeran wrote the song after an experience he had at a benefit show at a homeless shelter where he met a girl that inspired the song, and the honesty shows. It’s believable.
What it’s not, though, is…interesting. Whenever I listen to “The A Team”, I get this feeling that it’s very much a “songwriter’s song”; it’s transparently self-conscious about being good: getting the metaphors right, the production being unobtrusive, “oooh”s and piano in the correct places…that sort of thing. It’s like reading the class smart kid’s essay: it’s too concerned with being good that it forgot to be enjoyable.
The biggest fault of “The A Team” is that as a listen, it’s really dull. I’m sure it soundtracks a TV drama sadness montage quite nicely, but it doesn’t hold up to repeated listens, especially when you focus on it. Sheeran’s percussive guitar, the noodling electric guitar lead, and piano get lost in a haze of boredom. And the song doesn’t really go anywhere, either. I said that “The A Team” has a lot in common with “Somebody That I Used To Know”–both are acoustic heavy songs that are mindful of getting their check marks–but whereas “Somebody” has that biting Kimbra verse and gorgeous last chorus…”The A Team” just does another repetition of a chorus that wears itself out. It’s up for a Song of the Year Grammy, and it’s just as safe as that distinction implies.
Switching gears, let’s look at “Ho Hey”. Let’s go!
“Ho Hey” represents the other type of acoustic song we see with a lot of radio play: the warm, cozy sing and shoutalong (see: “Home” by Phillip Phillips, “Home” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and any Mumford and Sons song of your choice). One of the members of The Lumineers said that, “Anyone who plays an instrument can play a Lumineers song”, and after listening to “Ho Hey”, I believe it. And unlike “The A Team”, I’d actually want to play it; the chords ‘n stompin’ instrument set up is simple enough that anyone who’s heard the song once or twice can join in somehow. It’s also a really approachable song.
“Ho Hey” also doesn’t have the same “End, goddammit” problem that “The A Team” had, but it’s not instantly a better song. The first few times that I heard it, my first thought was “Yeah, I’ll have a grande cafe mocha with whipped cream, please”. The song seems like the ultimate example of coffeehouse song; so quaintly inoffensive that it could be playing over the speakers or by the guy playing there during lunch who’s hawking CDs after this set, and you’d still feel ok talking over it.
And where “The A Team”‘s lyrics were its strong suit, the same area is something of a weakness for “Ho Hey”. Of course, the “I belong with you/You belong with me/You’re my sweetheart” chorus is simple sweet, but the verses are surprisingly bitter. The first verse is basically “I walk a lonely road”, and the second verse boils down to “You should go out with me, not him”. And I’m not even generalizing those, sample lyrics include: “I’ve been living a lonely life”, “I don’t know where I belong”, and “I don’t think you’re right for him”. But the chorus is all warm and cute, so hey!
Like I said, I’m not ranking one over the other, mostly because they both fall in the same space for me. From a purely lyrical standpoint, “The A Team” is possibly one of the top songs I’ve Radio Ranted, but what holds it back from being a great song is that there’s no musical payoff or emotional weight, once you get past the dark subject matter. Meanwhile, “Ho Hey” is flimsy, but still charming in spite (and because) of it. Take your pick of either one, you won’t be disappointed, but you may not be thrilled, either.