Ed Sheeran is a full-fledged world-famous platinum-selling pop star now, and that’s fine, but he’d be the first to tell you: fame and fortune come with their own sets of problems. This is obviously true on a personal level, but it can extend to the music, too.
Try this: listen to Sheeran’s “Castle on the Hill”, the second track on ÷ (pronounced “Divide”, of course). It’s fine. It’s a pop song in the grand humble-epic tradition of U2, a rollicking singalong reminiscing about the past. All told, it’s one of the better songs on the album. Now that you have a sense of that one, go to your streaming service of choice and find “Castle on the Hill (Acoustic)”, a recording of a BBC session he did earlier this year. Is there any universe in which the album version is objectively better than the acoustic one? Calls for authenticity in pop music tend to be ill-advised, but by stripping the oh-so-thick sheen off his song, Sheeran finds its heart. Out of the studio and into the (figurative) coffeehouse, Sheeran’s words are truer, his melodies are brighter, his talents self-evident.
He is talented, after all. He’s been doing this singer-songwriter thing long enough, and with enough success, that the possibility that his fame is an accident has been forgotten. We’ve known for some time that he can sing and play the guitar. His one-man-band act with keyboards and loop pedals at the Grammys this year showed once and for all that he can do an awful lot more; there’s an innate sense of rhythm necessary to accomplish such a feat that doesn’t happen without natural talent and plenty of dedication to craft.
That he would waste that talent on something so banal as “Shape of You”, now, that’s the disappointment.
That Grammy performance aside, “Shape of You” is everything wrong with the 2017 Ed Sheeran, a little too leering to be a proper love song, a little too vanilla to be a proper sexytime jam, and instrumentally, a little too much like the last year’s worth of Sia singles to separate itself from the pop music pack. “Last night you were in my room / Now my bedsheets smell like you,” he sings vaguely creepily, before exclaiming, over and over again, “I’m in love with your body,” happily finding a way to use the word “love” without ever having to betray emotional investment.
Tracks like “Shape of You” find Sheeran continuing what he started on X‘s “Don’t”, half-hearted abandonment of his nice-guy schtick for the sake of presenting himself as a bad (but not too bad, and also, don’t forget, still sensitive) boy. This version of Sheeran is responsible for the worst moments on ÷, lines like “Your new man rents a house in the ‘burb / And wears a man bag on his shoulder, but I call it a purse” (congratulations on your casual misogyny, Ed!) on “New Man” and the credibility chasing of “Please know that I’m not trying to preach like I’m Reverend Run” on opener “Eraser”, which Sheeran insists on pronouncing “a razor”. The latter at least has the benefit of coming off as personal and thought-out despite its awkwardness. The former? Just a mess from front to back, whiny venom with none of the charms that can make such an exercise enjoyable.
Sheeran hit on something rare, something golden with “Sing”, the Pharrell-assisted smash from his last album. It’s a hip-hop folk song, the type of acoustic-guitar-‘n’-beats masterpiece that is a terrible idea something like 99% of the time. In Pharrell’s capable hands, it was infectious and groovy, a hit from the moment it was laid to tape.
There is no “Sing” on ÷.
There are, however, plenty of “Thinking Out Loud”s and “Photograph”s, represented on ÷ by songs like “How Would You Feel (Paean)”, which is a perfectly graceful love song that has just the right amount of acoustic guitar, a touch of piano, and Sheeran whispering sweet nothings into millions of ears. This is his wheelhouse at this point. He’s so good at setting these scenes: “We were sitting in a parked car / Stealing kisses in a front yard,” he sings, and sincerity just oozes out of every word. Maybe such sincerity stems from a real-life subject for these songs, as Sheeran has made no secret that the love songs on the album are about current better half Cherry Seaborn, but whatever the reason, these are the ones that ring true. “Perfect” is a lovely little waltz, while the Ryan Tedder-assisted “Happier” is a slow-burn of an anthem that could well be a big hit six months down the road.
Even these songs, however, never quite hit the heights of that acoustic “Castle On the Hill” (or “Photograph” or “Thinking Out Loud” for that matter), because they sound like products of the studio. When Sheeran has nothing but his guitar, his ability to tell a story is heightened by the fact that his tools to do so are limited. With an unlimited budget at his fingertips, his songs are laden with just enough artificiality to keep them ever-so-slightly removed from his audience. There are plenty of fine songs here, as long as you can see them through the knobs and faders.
It is the height of critical conceit to begrudge an artist success, and Sheeran has enough talent to create songs that shine beyond the gloss. Still, when there are plenty of documents out there of Sheeran’s skill in a live setting, it seems imperative that somehow, that live energy should be translated to the studio tracks. ÷ never quite gets there. At best, we have a middling collection of songs that are going to sound great in a packed arena. At worst, it’s a pretty significant step back from X, and once the initial novelty of its release wears off, it’s unlikely to enjoy the popular acclaim or the longevity of its predecessor.