One if by land, two if by sea, and three if by sheer pop adorability.
There's a new British Invasion afoot, some 40 years after the first one. It's a subtler wave – less brash and not novel at all – but it operates on some of the same levels as the first one. Like the Beatles, the young invaders are charming, sweet and pleading. They too wish to hold our hands; eight days a week is not nearly enough to show us how much they care.
Toronto saw some of the vanguards of the movement recently, with appearances by English artists Ellie Goulding (who popped in for a pair of private shows during the Toronto International Film Festival) and the ginger-haired singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran (whose winningly energetic solo-acoustic show at the Air Canada Centre was a girly screamathon for 14,000).
Unfortunately, Sam Smith, the newest member of the earnest assault team, couldn't finish off the attack this Sunday. The soul-pop supernova postponed his concert at Kool Haus on Sunday, begging off because of tonsillitis. A sold-out crowd was denied its pretty-voiced 22-year-old, whose album is In The Lonely Hour and whose hit is Stay With Me, a gospel-tinged appeal in which a trembling Smith doesn't want his lover to leave, asking "will you hold my hand?"
If Smith's voice wasn't up to the job, Sheeran at the ACC was in full throat. He used a looping pedal to lay down acoustic-guitar rhythms on the fly, which allowed him freedom to roam or to rapid-fire rap or just plain vocally endear himself unfettered. His strumming patterns were simple and often percussive – perfect accompaniment for his clear, pleading way with songs. He has a touch of boy-band emoting to his game, with dashes of Justin Timberlake and even Al Green too. "I'm out of touch, I'm out of love," he crooned on Lego House, "I'll pick you up when you're getting down." It is simultaneously a declaration of his own blues as well as an empathetic pledge, which is double play that is irresistible to a doe-eyed demographic.
A demographic, of course, which was born to the internet. There are no mysteries like there were in 1964, and no borders either. The American-based Billboard Hot 100 has been populated lately by not only British forces such as Adele but by recording artists from New Zealand (Lorde), Australia (5 Seconds of Summer and Iggy Azalea) and Belgium (Gotye).
Sheeran has released a pair of commercially successful albums (2011's + and this year's x), but his singles haven't charted as well in North America as elsewhere. As a performer, he sells his material exceptionally well, but there's a not-so-special sameness to it.
When, in 1964, the Beatles released the album Something New, it was, in fact, something new. Current acts are up against it in terms of matching the sensation of the originals. Thankfully for them, young audiences have limited attention spans and the eternal urge to claim something as their own. Every generation, then, gets the British Invasion they deserve, and all concerned seem to be satisfied with that arrangement.