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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"The A Team"'s singular narrative makes me think deeply about the homelessness I see around Berkeley

Ed Sheeran's tale of one Angel grapples with connection, addiction, and its subject's all-too-likely fate.

A lot of things make me pause and think while I'm here in Berkeley. It's the hallmark of a college town, especially considering most of those moments occur in a classroom. However, there's one recurring sight across the city that is decidedly out in the open that always leaves me with unanswered questions: the homeless population.

It's clear that many of those in that population are suffering from various things they can't control on their own, and ready access to many substances on the city streets leads to abuse and further life difficulty. On a level, I sympathize with them, and that's why hearing Ed Sheeran's 2010 song "The A Team" recently made me really think about all the suffering I've seen out on the open in the past four years. Sheeran wrote the song after performing at a homeless shelter and being particularly touched by the story of one woman, Angel, around whose tale he formed his lyrics.

There's an approachability and a realness to Sheeran's narrative in "The A Team" that is sorely lacking in other songs that approach homelessness, exploitation and the like (Phil Collins is good at many things, but tackling this topic is not one of them). What I think it comes down to is Sheeran's lyrical focus on Angel. Rather than presenting an overview of homeless plight, "The A Team" is a singular story, and it's through this narrow perspective that the lyrics gain their power. Combine that with the rawness of Sheeran's simple, acoustic guitar-led folk arrangement, and you're left with a song that builds a world of emotion out of being straightforward.

Angel's story layers on the realities of drug addiction ("White lips, pale face / Breathing in the snowflakes / Burnt lungs, sour taste") and what she's willing to do to make the "loose change, bank notes" she can to fuel it ("And in a pipe she flies to the Motherland / Or sells love to another man.") There's no sugar-coating her life, or that of any addict. Drugs — specifically crack cocaine, a "Class A" drug, hence the song's title — have taken away her life as she knew it. Angel notes she's "been this way since 18"; with Sheeran himself being 19 at the time of the exchange, I can only imagine how he internally reckoned with Angel's narrative. At 21, I find it hard for myself to approach the topic, even though I'm literally surrounded by it here in Berkeley. The difference for me is that the homeless population I see is on the older side — if someone around my age is in Berkeley, it's most likely because they're a student. I don't know how I'd even grapple with seeing a teen or young adult in such a state...

What seals "The A Team"'s impact for me is Sheeran's succinct acknowledgment that death is the only foreseeable conclusion to the cycle he has been relayed. Sheeran's changing of the song's final line from "For angels to fly" to "For angels to die" is condemnatory and emotional enough on its own, but before that, the bridge reflects how he feels about this woman to whom he became attached on that fateful day: "An angel will die / Covered in white / Closed eyes and hopin' for a better life." It's clear Sheeran sees Angel as a good person whose life has fatally gone bad, its demise accelerated by her crack addiction. This understanding is only made possible by the human connection the two experienced on the day of his shelter performance.

"The A Team" is a rare example of true empathy for a vulnerable person being relayed through song. Hearing it always makes me think about those I see around me whose life arcs may be similar to Angel's, and it leaves me wondering just how much I can and should do for them. Alas, there is no one-size-fits-all answer, whether in my Berkeley, Ed Sheeran's West Yorkshire, or anywhere; stories and questions only continue to pile up as more and more fall "under the upper hand / And go mad for a couple grams."


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