Photo courtesy of edsheeran.com
BY PARKER KLYN
On paper, Ed Sheeran shouldn’t be a pop star. He’s not strikingly handsome, his voice is only slightly distinct, and he refuses to adhere to mainstream pop trends; “The A Team” came out during the height of dubstep’s popularity, the acoustic “Thinking Out Loud” competed with impeccable pop confections like Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk,” and his newest album, “÷,” is the antithesis to today’s ultra-saturated tropical house.
Instead of smooth synthesized beats and lush soundscapes, the music of “÷” is focused on one thing: Sheeran’s identity. And as we’ve seen from huge pop statements like Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” and Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” how much the listener cares about the artist as a person goes a long way in determining how successful of a record it is.
Admittedly, “÷” starts out clumsily. “Eraser” is mostly Sheeran rapping and reflecting on his fame, and while he’s shown great appreciation for hip-hop – he used to sing hooks for UK grime MCs, and Rick Ross hopped on a remix of “Don’t” – he’s not exactly Dizzee Rascal or Skepta with these bars.
It’s clear he wanted to make a statement, but it simply doesn’t come across well.
Thankfully, much of the rest of the album sees Sheeran return to the pure, acoustic adult contemporary pop that we expect.
“Dive” has the best vocal performance of the record. He sounds legitimately pained on the chorus when he sings “Don’t tell me you need me, if you don’t believe it.”
“Galway Girl” is a romp of a track. He’s half rapping here too, but he’s telling a story. The fiddle on the hook is whimsically fun, and Sheeran’s story (meeting a good Irish girl in a Galway pub) reminded me of the folk songs heard in those very Irish pubs.
It’s clear Sheeran’s Irish heritage is important to him; he references his parents multiple times on the record, and the fiddle appears again in a bonus track.
Of course, Sheeran cut his teeth on likable, heartfelt ballads, and “÷” has its fair share. Album closer “Supermarket Ballads” is the best of these. It’s an ode to his late grandmother, softy produced with sweet piano and quietly swelling strings.
The pre-chorus is powerful, especially coming from a generally risk-averse happy-go-lucky pop star: “I hope that I see the world as you did/ ‘Cause a life with love is a life well-lived.” It’s evocative of another great 2017 ballad from a British singer-songwriter: Sampha’s “(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano,” which mourned his mother.
The love songs are fun, if uninspired. Many of them are just a little bit too reminiscent of “Thinking Out Loud” (a song I found to be mostly unbearable), but Sheeran thankfully ditches the generic pining and sticks to the joyous highs and heartbreaking lows of love.
“What Do I Know” is the most surprising song on “÷,” not because it tackles social issues, but because it actively ignores them. Sheeran sings about how it’s okay to use music and art as a little bit of escapism. The revolution might be coming, but that doesn’t mean we can’t listen to some pop and have a good time.
Overall, “÷” sees Sheeran at his most likable with an endearing mix of personal stories and relatable escapades as youth with freedom. One of the lead singles from the album, “Castle on the Hill,” evokes the driving pop of stadium bands like U2 and Coldplay, and I mean that in the best way possible; the song is mournful and nostalgic and funny and relatable all at once.
Everybody has their own domain that just feels like home, and Sheeran’s able to channel those feelings well. In expressing that sentiment, Sheeran sets himself apart from his superstar peers by not just referencing his origins, but seeming like he still hasn’t quite left them. The Chainsmokers started out making meme-worthy EDM; they now have three pop songs in the Billboard top 10. Hailee Steinfeld burst onto the scene as an Oscar-nominated child actor; “Starving” almost made it to the top of the charts. Sheeran made a name for himself crafting heartfelt acoustic pop, and he’s still doing it. The only difference now is that he’s doing it better than anyone else.