Two years ago, Ed Sheeran confounded all received wisdom about stadium shows by selling out three nights at Wembley stadium and charming a quarter of a million people, armed with no more than an acoustic guitar and a loop pedal, like the world’s most popular busker. For most artists, it would have been a career peak beyond their wildest imaginings. Yet Sheeran was only just getting going.
In 2017, his level of commercial success has risen from phenomenal to preposterous. In March, his third studio album, ÷, hit No 1 in 14 countries, including the UK and US. In Britain, in its week of release, it sold more than the rest of the Top 500 albums added together: tracks from it occupied 16 places in the Top 20 singles chart, including the entire top five.
This world domination is all the more extraordinary given that, on the surface, Sheeran appears a far-from-remarkable performer. The New York Times’ recent sniffy assertion that he is “able to produce reasonable re-creations of a whole range of styles” is a little harsh, but nor could he make any claims for devastating originality. His acoustic balladry frequently descends into mawkish sentimentality; his rapping is decidedly valiant rather than virtuoso.
Yet as a live performer he is impressively charismatic and intensely likable, betraying the fact that his career is largely founded on years of compulsive, incessant gigging. Alone on stage at this first of a four-night run of shows at the O2, grinning affably from beneath that familiar carrot mop, Sheeran is far more transfixing than you would generally expect of a squat, self-effacing singer-songwriter whose tour wardrobe still appears to be sponsored by Oxfam.
Slamming at his battered acoustic guitar as if bearing it an intense personal grievance, he opens with recent single Castle on the Hill, a moving reverie on his small-town Suffolk childhood. Piquant and propulsive, it is Sheeran at his best: his gauche memory of driving fast down country lanes, listening to Elton John’s Tiny Dancer, seems to confirm his defiant, resolute lack of conventional cool.
Sheeran is most effective at his most maverick and idiosyncratic. Eraser winningly melds hip-hop and flamenco guitar, while his 2011 breakthrough hit The A Team, a big-hearted paean to a crack-addicted young prostitute, remains a sparky, empathic update on the Police’s Roxanne. His rapid-fire rap underpinning New Man is an acid-tongued, witty takedown of an ex’s truly insufferable new lover: “Every time a rap song comes on he makes a gang sign / Says, ‘Chune!’”
It’s harder to fall in love with his recent, much-maligned Galway Girl, an ersatz jig whose shamelessly appropriated traditional Irish instrumentation Sheeran has freely admitted is calculatedly aimed at the Corrs-loving Irish diaspora. Nevertheless, the tune works because its earworm of a chorus sticks to the inside of your cranium like superglue, whether you want it to or not.
Despite his many attributes, it’s easy to see why Sheeran has voluble detractors. A proliferation of lachrymose, cliche-laden ballads means that tonight’s mid-set has a decided lull. The overwrought Dive is a shoulder-heaving acoustic power ballad every bit as grisly as that description suggests: How Would You Feel (Paean), Photograph and Perfect all near Chris de Burgh territory. You suspect that Sheeran rarely scrawls a red line through a lyric for being too cheesy.
This mid-set torpor is largely forgiven when he oozes into the slinky R&B of Pharrell collaboration Sing and the priapic, chart-annexing sex-pop of Shape of You. His reservoirs of self-belief are so deep that he carries off this unlikely transformation into a carnal lover man. Sheeran ends a triumphant night spitting out the jagged rant-rap of You Need Me, I Don’t Need You, the 2011 single that audaciously declared the inevitability of his music-world domination: “From day one, I’ve been prepared / With VO5 wax for my ginger hair.” Back then, the idea seemed ridiculous. Who’d have thought he’d go on and actually do it?
• At O2 Arena, London, until 3 May. Box office: 0844 856 0202.