Here's how much You're Beautiful still weighs on James Blunt: He specifically references his biggest hit twice on his new album, The Afterlove.
On Love Me Better, he sings: "Saw you standing outside a bar / would have said 'You're beautiful' / but I've used that line before."
And on the meta-autobiographical 2005: "I woke up this morning and realized / all I do is apologize / for a song I wrote in 2005 / Didn't come with a warning / but fame is unkind / put me on top of the world, couple of girls/ and then left me behind."
"It's my biggest song, and probably will forever be," Blunt said by phone during a recent day off tour in Tulsa, Okla. "And I'm asked about it a lot, as if something incredibly good is in some way a burden. I'm asked, and it's implied that it might be a bad thing, when it's a fantastic thing. ... So it's sort of pretty perfect to write about it in that way."
It's certainly honest in a way that most pop songwriters usually aren't. And for that, credit might have to go to his buddy Ed Sheeran, whose North American arena tour, with opening act Blunt in tow, hits Tampa on Tuesday.
"He was hunting and pushing for being very open and very direct in a way that I was quite uncomfortable with," said Blunt, 43. "I think I've grown more guarded in my songwriting over the years; I never really reveal that much, to which he said, 'C'mon, that's not really the purpose. The purpose of songwriting is to be open.' He has very direct lyrics himself."
As a purveyor of some pretty sweet acoustic balladry of his own, Sheeran has to owe some of his success to Blunt. That may be why they've struck up such a fast and fascinating friendship in recent years, not just touring together, but giving joint interviews, attending royal parties and taking joint vacations.
"We were on skiing holiday and writing songs for my new album," Blunt said. "While were there, over a drink, he said, we should hang out more, and I believe the U.S. was the tour that made sense. For me, it's just fantastic experience. ... I get about 40 minutes a day; that means I'm off stage about two hours before him, so I've got two extra hours' drinking time compared to him. And we have a blast."
Though Blunt has floated on and off radio and TV over the years with a string of catchy, often charming singles — 1973, Goodbye My Lover, Bonfire Heart — You're Beautiful remains his calling card. He never expected his sweet, simple earworm to sell millions of copies, never expected it to earn Grammy nominations for Record and Song of the Year. And he certainly never expected it to become one of this century's most despised pop earworms (Rolling Stone featured it on its list of "20 Love Songs We Never Want to Hear Again"). As he sings on 2005: "I wrote you a love song / now it's something that you hate on / And I'm sad the record's broken / but I don't think I can write a better love song / Without it I'd be no one."
"Everyone says it's a really romantic song. It's not," he said. "It's about a guy stalking a girl while he was high on drugs in the subway, and probably should have been arrested. But people tell me it's romantic. That's pretty f---ed up. So how songs are perceived, it could be anyone's guess."
Take OK, a song he wrote for The Afterlove that ultimately didn't make the album. German DJ Robin Schulz got hold of it, and it became a surprise dance hit around the world.
"I didn't like it, and I threw it away," he said. "Now it's my lead single in America. A song I thought I would never hear again or play again is a song I'm now playing and hearing every single day."
The surprising part? It's all working with Sheeran's much younger fans.
"To me, it's been awesome to play to his audience," he said. "I think I've been marketed so much toward perhaps an older audience, and in many ways, our music is related. So yeah, I can really play to his younger audience. Often I sign autographs or take pictures with people afterward for an hour and a quarter, and there's 200 people that come up and say hello, and I have a sense they've really connected to the music. Which has been absolutely fantastic."
You might even say it's beautiful.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.