British acoustic troubadour Ed Sheeran’s material, to date, has ranged from super-earnest (“The A-Team,” his collaborations with Taylor Swift) to cocked-hat-cocky (“You Need Me, I Don’t Need You,” or perhaps his cover with grime artist Devlin of “All Along the Watchtower.”) Either way, though, you usually know pretty much what you’re going to get: Jason Mraz rap over choppy (and chops-y) guitar, or the kind of balladry that’s made Sheeran an unexpected heartthrob to fans.
“Sing,” from Sheeran’s upcoming x (the follow-up to +), is more of a departure. It fits the times nicely: there’s some of fellow Brit Sam Smith in Sheeran’s rubbery falsetto, plus some of Robin Thicke’s ubiquitous “Blurred Lines” in the percussion. But Sheeran’s really got his heavy-breathing, hyper-flirtatious sights on another, older target: Justin Timberlake’s solo debut “Like I Love You.” Countless artists have died on that hill, from former boy banders trying to reinvent themselves in Timberlake’s image, to teen idols in protracted growth spurts, to Timberlake himself on parts of The 20/20 Experience. But Sheeran brings legit musicianship, not just branding, to the tune, and his vocal tics and the “Billie Jean” percussion suggest he might be looking back even further, to Michael Jackson’s imperial phase. Plenty of worse things to aspire to.