Music

Ed Sheeran: ÷

There are plenty of fine songs here, as long as you can see them through the knobs and faders.


Ed Sheeran

÷

Label: Asylum / Atlantic
US Release Date: 2017-03-03
UK Release Date: 2017-03-03
Artist Website
Amazon
iTunes

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.

5

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
5
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image