Artist: Ed Sheeran
In Brief: Ed takes his music in a few new directions that I appreciate, and occasionally he shows some real wit in the songwriting department. But so much of this album feels calculated to clone the success of past singles and to pander to as wide an audience as possible. It drags down an otherwise enjoyable experience.
It’s kind of a running gag that whenever I mention in a Facebook post that I’m enjoying something by Ed Sheeran, I’ll finish the post by saying “Don’t judge me.” It’s like I feel the need to acknowledge that his music is a guilty pleasure. There are a number of his songs where, if you caught me singing along to one of them, you’d find it a bit strange, because his whole club-meets-coffeehouse vibe often leads to awkward lyrics and subject matter that don’t really fit my lifestyle at all. I think he has written a few genuinely good songs that don’t make me feel the need to make excuses for myself when I admit to liking them. But even when I can’t relate to a song at all and I’m just enjoying the tongue-twisting wordplay, I’ve got to admit the guy has a killer voice and music is fun to sing along to. That’s mainly the recipe that got me hooked on his second album X, whose smash singles I still haven’t gotten tired of, from the unabashed crowd-pumping anthem “Sing” to the ubiquitous wedding ballad “Thinking Out Loud”. Those are good songs, darn it. Why do I feel the need to say something like “I’m not gonna lie” when I express that opinion?
Ed’s third album, which in keeping with his apparent love of mathematical symbols is called ÷, falls largely into that same pattern for me. There’s a song or two that I can unreservedly proclaim to love, a bunch of other guilty pleasure tracks that easily won me over in spite of their obvious drawbacks… and to be honest, a somewhat disheartening amount of attempts to recapture the mood of some of his previous hits. There are certainly a few things I’ve never heard Sheeran try before, which at first lead me to believe that the time off and Ed’s self-imposed social media exile between albums led to some genuine artistic growth. But he snaps back to old habits so quickly that it can be frustrating. My two biggest criticisms of X were that it genre-hopped so much that it didn’t really hang together all that well as an album, and that the clumsily censored swearing in a few tracks felt like a last-ditch attempt to make his music family-friendly when the subject matter of his songs clearly wasn’t. Those same pitfalls drag this new album down as well. It’s annoying, because I want to believe with some of these songs that I’m truly getting to the heart of the songwriter behind them. Yet he so often settles for a “design by committee” approach that seems to favor marketing over authenticity. It leaves me not quite understanding what audience these songs are for. It’s like I want him to go one way and be the clean-cut, wide-eyed romantic whose music you can be comfortable listening with your mom or your kids around, or go the other way and be the hard-drinking and harder-partying badass who is all too aware of his own vices and doesn’t give a crap whether that earns him a Parental Advisory sticker. Trying to have it both ways leads to the unfortunate implication that all the genre-hopping is just a side effect of his throwing as many personalities as he can at the wall and seeing what sticks. It makes ÷ (and I apologize for making the obvious joke here) a rather divisive record.
I’m hooked pretty much immediately by the rich acoustic guitar melody that loops throughout this song. It’s a nice surprise to hear this record opening in a decidedly different way than the subdued “One” did, though I can imagine this’ll be a bit weird for newbies to Ed’s music since he leads off immediately with a rap verse instead of his usual singing, and on X, we had a few tracks to ease into it before he started spittin’ verses. Ed’s rapping voice is just weird the first time you hear it. Doesn’t seem like the kind of thing a red-headed British dude should attempt. But the dirty little secret is, I actually find this amusing. He packs a ton of personal detail about his life from childhood up until now, how he discovered his love for music and paid his dues in the early days, and how surreal and incongruous his life as a famous musician seems now, given his quick rise to a stratospheric level of fame. Ed has his fair share of vices, which he fully admits to here (and isn’t exactly shy about on roughly 75% of the rest of the songs he’s recorded, for that matter), and while his cavalier attitude about them is a bit surprising, I do appreciate the hint of irony in his self-aware take on it: “I’m well aware of certain things that can destroy a man like me/And with that said, give me one more.” (Side note: Ed’s 26 years old as of this writing. Please don’t become a member of the 27 Club, OK?) That’s the pre-chorus, which does an excellent job of pivoting into the song’s melodic chorus as he switches from rapping to singing. And my only real complaint here is that the song seems a bit off-balance, for the most part being an honest look at a man not yet ready to fend off his personal demons and maybe even finding a bit of twisted joy in using them to numb the overwhelming anxieties he faces, but switching to a bit of an annoying commercial for his latest tour in the bridge, where he brags, “Welcome to the new show.” It’s like how actual rappers back in the day had to remind us what year it is when they dropped a new album. It makes an otherwise intriguing song feel immediately dated – how’s this gonna work on future tours when this song is no longer new? Will he have to change the lyrics or stop playing it? That distraction aside, this is still a strong opening number that puts Ed’s eccentricities front and center.
2. Castle on the Hill
For such an upbeat song, with such a breezy chorus melody and a feel-good, arena rock sort of chorus, it bugs me that I feel a total lack of excitement about it. On paper, you’d think Ed was doing everything I want a songwriter to do here – serving up detailed vignettes that help us understand his formative years, giving the audience a picture of the place he grew up in and a hefty dose of nostalgia for innocence lost. It’s not quite like anything on X that I can recall, and yet there’s something about it that feels annoyingly manufactured, despite all the stories of teenage mishaps and lost friendships and such that clearly meant a lot to Ed. Maybe it’s the electric guitar that bugs me? It seems like it’s just a few boring chords on delay pedal overdrive. Look at what The Edge typically played for U2 back in their glory days, and sure, it was basically the same trick. But this doesn’t even have the same rousing feeling to it. It’s just sort of there to clutter everything up. And the lyrics, while well-intentioned, don’t make a terribly good case for missing the good old days, given how Ed starts with a memory of breaking his arm and continues to go off on tangents about smoking and drunken binges and such. Reality ensued for the members of his posse after they split up and began facing their individual adult problems, which don’t sound like the stuff of legend, because adult problems and boring and childhood problems sure are a bunch of zany fun! That’s basically what this song boils down to – reminiscing about experiences that I as a listener am glad I never had. It’s a shame that I feel completely locked outside of this song, because it honestly is one of Ed’s best vocal performances, and I’m sure that’s mostly what your average person hearing it on the radio will notice.
This is the one song on the record that I love pretty much unreservedly. That’s kind of funny, considering it’s a song about warning someone you’re about to fall head over heels in love with them and that they’d better not say sweet nothings just to get you feeling all lovey-dovey unless they damn well mean it. Ed goes for a bit of an old-school soul vibe here, using the electric guitar rather economically to set up the easygoing 6/8 rhythm with a fair amount of starts and stops. There’s just enough to it to justify the choice of electric over acoustic, and Ed’s voice follows suit, starting off smooth on the verse but packing a hell of a punch on the chorus – when he belts out “Don’t call me baby unless you mean it!”, I realize that this may well be my favorite vocal performance of his to date. I like that it’s a love song, but instead of the usual mushiness, there’s a dose of self-awareness and a bit of an edge to it. There’s a guitar solo in the bridge that was apparently provided by Eric Clapton, one of Ed’s musical heroes. It’s certainly got that “let it sing and then pull back to leave the audience hanging on for more” sort of vibe to it that I guess you’d expect from Clapton, but volume-wise, it feels a bit buried in the mix, which does it a slight disservice. Despite that one little glitch, I still think “Dive” is the best mix of meaningful lyrics and a solid musical and vocal effort that this album has to offer. Other songs get it right in at least one of those departments… but never all three.
4. Shape of You
Come on, does this one even need an introduction? At this point you’ve probably heard it whether you wanted to or not. Everything that there is to say about the resemblance of its melodic, tropical percussion to Sia‘s “Cheap Thrills” and its partial ripoff of the melody from TLC‘s “No Scrubs” has already been said (Ed even copped to that last part and gave TLC a co-write credit). It’s a fun song that I’ve grown to appreciate in spite of its glaring flaws. My first exposure to it, when Ed played it on Saturday Night Live, was not a positive one. It just seemed like he was pandering to the clubbing set, and I couldn’t even figure out why the hell he was holding his guitar for this one. To be fair, “Sing” was all about Ed trying to get some hottie to dance with him in a club, and I loved that song; why should it bother me that he’s waxing superficial about being in love with someone’s body this time around? Digging in a little deeper, I realized that the song (which Ed was going to pitch to Rihanna until he realized he couldn’t help but put just enough personal detail into it that she’d probably turn it down) was actually about having a conversation and enjoying some cheap thr- uh, inexpensive delights, with someone he met on the dance floor, taking the time to have a meal and a conversation, and get to know her personality and establish some compatibility before getting around to admitting that oh yeah, she’s pretty hot, too. It’s not my favorite of his lyrics by a long shot, but it certainly could be worse. I guess you could say the seductive groove of the song has pretty much beaten me into submission at this point. Walk Off the Earth‘s highly inventive cover version certainly helped.
Remember what I said about “Dive” being a solid love ballad without totally giving into mushiness? This one totally gives into it. I’m not going to say that’s completely a bad thing, as I loved “Thinking Out Loud”, and that song went way overboard with the sunny optimism about two people feeling the exact same way about each other as old farts as they currently did as young kids. (OK, I guess it happens from time to time. I’m not that cynical.) Not to be outdone in the optimistic hyperbole department is this song about someone looking perfect, which may as well be subtitled “(Wedding Song #2)” in the loudest possible parenthesis, because it’s such an obvious bid to outdo Ed’s previous success in that department. The swaying rhythm of “Dive”, just a little slower, seems to be reprising itself here (especially since he cannibalizes sentiments from the two previous songs when he sings “Darling, just dive right in and follow my lead” near the beginning of it), but there’s no bite to this one. It melts into a puddle of sentimental goop, with nothing really standing out in the instrumental department despite the strings and the sweet vocal melody trying their darndest to tug at the old heartstrings. Maybe I’ll warm up to it when I have a friend’s wedding or three to mentally tie it to – it’s only a matter of time. But for now… meh. Decent attempt, but I’m not feeling it.
6. Galway Girl
I’m sure that someone, somewhere has tried to mix Celtic folk music and rap at some point in the weird, wonderful history of modern music. Ed can’t be the first. But he may well be the first to have the hubris to think he can make it a hit by sheer brute force, and actually, I sort of admire the stones it must have taken him to insist that this oddball track remain on the album despite the reservations of his label. He starts off innocently enough with a lilting folk melody and a tale of an Englishman falling in love with a lovely Irish lass playing the fiddle in a band, while an actual Irish folk band, Beoga, provides an appropriately upbeat backdrop… and then, cue the programmed beats and the rapping! It’s pretty weird, but I actually liked this right away. I’d imagine fan reactions to it will mostly be strongly positive or strongly negative, with very little in between. I guess it works for me because the heavily-accented rapping was already part of Ed’s shtick and I’m generally quite entertained by it, and I’ve always had a soft spot for Celtic music, and I tend to find it amusing when a rap break gets dropped into an unexpected genre and it actually, strangely, sort of fits the groove. I’ve probably lost all credibility at this point trying to defend this one, and there’s certainly a lot about it that momentarily tempts me to change my mind and label it pure trash, from the heavy smoking and bar-hopping that seems to occupy most of this Englishman and Irishwoman’s time together, to the ill-advised drunken crowd sing-along at the end. No, they’re not singing along to the chorus of the song… they’re singing along to the fiddle melody. It’s goofy as hell, yet somehow it adds to the bizarre charm of the song. (And I’ll be honest. I’ve tried to sing along to Celtic fiddle melodies before. The difference is, I was in the privacy of my own automobile.)
I always felt that “Bloodstream” was an underrated track on X. At least, I don’t recall ever hearing folks talk about it the way they did about some of its other tracks. It had a more subdued vibe compared to the heavy-hitters on that record, but it used restraint to great effect. I bring that up because “Happier”, wedged into that same “opening of side B” slot on this album, is similarly restrained and I like it for that. Now let me clear… it doesn’t sound like “Bloodstream” at all, nor is the subject matter at all similar. This one’s a ballad that strays from the well-worn path of obvious radio single fodder and manages to stay pensive and never totally “go big” for its entire run. (The percussion and background vocals hint at it by swelling up at times, but it deliberately avoids the sudden “switch from solo singer to full band for the big chorus” cliché.) It fits well, considering it’s a reflective and surprisingly mature take on seeing your ex with someone new, and realizing you don’t mind, because you’re over it and you just want the person to find the happiness they couldn’t find with you. I identify with that feeling. It’s been quite a while, but I remember what it was like to get all messed up over a relationship that ended badly and then finally come to a sense of peace about it, and altruistically accept that both of us really were better off. We needed an intimate moment on this record to just let Ed play the acoustic and reflect on something that mattered without all the production gimmickry. This one doesn’t immediately stand out as an amazing highlight or anything, but it fits the bill nicely when you find yourself missing the songwriter behind the showman.
8. New Man
Any good will earned by that last song is immediately torn down with this rather cold-hearted diss to an ex, and the new man candy she’s got hanging on her arm who Ed apparently despises. This one may as well be “Don’t, Part 2” – the musical mood is similarly sassy, and the self-censorship is at its most glaring, right there in the chorus, when he expresses exasperation over his ex “callin’ me up tryin’ to *record scratch*“. We all know you’re talking about a booty call there, Ed, so you might as well just let those effbombs fly. Pretty much every critic I’ve read or listened to who has discussed this song has pointed out the irony of the phrase “He’s got his eyebrows plucked and his arsehole bleached” going completely uncensored – apparently if you use the British variant, singing about anal hygiene is totally family-friendly, I guess? But what really irks me about this song is how systematically he proceeds to emasculate this new guy’s image, as if he somehow the manlier man is the one who really deserves the girl. Aside from the extreme TMI in that one line, most of the stuff he dogs on this guy for boils down to him being a rich D-bag overly obsessed with his own appearance. (You’re on thin ice singing about that when you’re a world famous musician airing your one-sided grievances to millions of people, Ed. Just sayin’.) Assuming the story is true as told and not exaggerated for the sake of the song, the real take-away here is that two ex-lovers trying to be friends have some serious boundary issues, which reveals to Ed that she’s not really all that into this new guy she keeps talking up to him. I could see how that would be exhausting to someone trying to make an honest, clean break from a relationship. And that subject of whether exes can truly be friends without any lingering baggage might actually be worth exploring… in a better song that doesn’t simultaneously slut-shame the woman and imply that men should adhere to your own personal understanding of heterosexual expression.
9. Hearts Don’t Break Around Here
The next few tracks, while not as blatantly wrong-headed as “New Man”, are bland enough that they make getting to the end of the album a real chore. This lilting acoustic song, with its fingerpicked 6/8 rhythm, really sounds like it wants to be the next “Tenerife Sea”. Man, I loved that track on X. Such a beautifully underrrated ballad. Now imagine stripping the candlelit imagery and the melodic charm of that song, replacing it with a weak hook and an even weaker premise (sorry, but I don’t buy that feeling safe in someone’s arms means either of your hearts are somehow incabapble of being broken at some point down the line), and it just seems like a hollow shell of a formula Ed should have never tried to repeat. Honestly, I have to think for quite a bit before I even recall how the melody of this song even goes. It’s just that inoffesnively bland.
10. What Do I Know?
I can’t think of very many songs in recent memory that piss me off as much as this one does. It’s probably the most easygoing, inoffensive track on the album, so it might surprise you that my hatred burns so strong here. But there’s an air of manufactured simplicity to this one that plays against pretty much every single strength that I know Ed has at this point. He’s doing the simplest muted guitar strum in the world, trying to go back to that old “three chords and the truth” well while putting on this air of folksy wisdom, reminding us that all the money and education and fame in the world don’t matter as much as “love, understanding, and positivity”. Setting aside the fact that he apparently listened to all the blandest, hippie-dippiest radio singles that the likes of Jack Johnson ever came up with and said, “Let’s go with that, but even more basic”, he paints in such broad strokes here that it’s just painful. Oh, so now that you’ve extolled the shape of a perfect woman, life’s not about fitting in your jeans? And now that you’ve admitted you want people to be proud of your fame and fortune instead of jealous, you think it’s a good time to tell us our stocks and portfolios and such are immaterial? Easy for you to say, you can pay folks to manage that stuff for you so that your (according to your own song) uneducated simple mind doesn’t have to deal with it! I’m not saying Ed’s stupid. I’m saying he’s trying to pull off this “Aw, shucks” sort of persona that the more self-aware and deliberately conflicted musings in some of his other songs immediately betray. I’m not buying that just because you didn’t go to university (which, for the record, is pronounced “Un-UH-versity” here, just to make things that much more awkward), you’re somehow not smart and are immune from having to learn common sense. We know better than that about you already, Ed. And being smart about your health and your finances is something that the rest of us who can’t just magically pay to make those problems go away do actually have to think about. The real kicker is that he came up with this one on the spot just to impress a record label executive and show off his ability to write a song in no time flat. Nothing screams “authenticity” like a thinly-veiled humblebrag in the form of a song, am I right? And just to add insult to injury, he insists “We could change the whole world with a piano” when there isn’t a piano to be heard anywhere in the damn song. But I guess that’s OK, because…
11. How Would You Feel (Paean)
There’s a piano in the next two songs! (Jeez, it’s like he knew I was going to notice the lack of piano in the last song and gripe about it.) It’s not an instrument that he actually plays, but… whatever, it actually mixes pretty well with the acoustic guitar that he does play in this song. It’s kinda pretty. The lyrics are more or less unabashed praise of his girlfriend, and for the most part they’re wall-to-wall clichés about falling deeper in love with somebody, which seems redundant after songs like “Dive” and “Perfect” that already explored both sides of that coin. He hasn’t quite shaken off the faux-simpleton persona here, trying to toss off the phrase “How would you feel if I told you that I loved you?” like it ain’t no thang, by commenting immediately after, “It’s just something that I want to do.” Come on man, if you actually mean that, you can’t just play it off like it’s just a casual observation. That’s just stuff you put in a song because you can imagine young female audience members swooning at your cloying cutesiness. Just when I start thinking we’ve reached the level of John Mayer at his uninspired adult contemporary peak, along comes the actual John Mayer with an airy electric guitar solo. OK, Ed, the Clapton guest spot was nice and all, but at some point you either need to start playing your own solos or just not recording songs that highlight your glaring inability to perform them. Throw some fancy acoustic stuff in there if you’re not comfortable enough with the electric yet. I’d actually prefer that, because it would bring some shred of authenticity back to a song that’s supposed to be an intimate glimpse into your love life.
12. Supermarket Flowers
Ed closes the record with a cold and broken Hallelujah that might not be anywhere near Leonard Cohen‘s expression of such a thing, but it’s still a genuine tear-jerker. This one’s completely guitar-free, based solely around piano, which is really my only complaint about it – it kinda bugs me when an artist proficient on one instrument switches to another and then doesn’t do much of anything beyond basic chords with it (or in this case, just lets someone else play those basic chords). There’s no reason why this couldn’t have been done on acoustic guitar. But that likely won’t matter to anyone hit by the sheer force of these lyrics. Ed writes from his mother’s point of view, imagining how she felt as she had to deal with the death of Ed’s grandmother, taking one final trip to her home to clear out the belongings of the recently deceased, and getting all kinds of emotional as various memories of their time together were triggered by the familiar sights and smells and such. There’s a lot of love in the details here, and for the first time in several tracks, I don’t feel like Ed is pandering, even though the song is quite shameless in its heartstring-tugging. The line “You were an angel in the shape of my mum” just kills me. It’s corny, but it works. And the final thought that the album ends on, with God himself saying “Hallelujah, you’re home” sort of brings the album full circle, back to the little kid singing in church mentioned in the first verse of “Eraser” as Ed recounted his humble beginnings.
My policy with bonus tracks these days is generally not to go into much detail about them beyond a brief mention if they’re worth listening to, because I figure they shouldn’t play into my rating of the album unless they made it onto the album. (Plus these track-by-track reviews are long enough as it is.) However, I have to say that I genuinely look forward to hearing three of the four tracks on the special edition of this album each time, honestly far more than roughly half of the songs on the standard edition. All three of those are essentially musical tourism – heck, “Barcelona” with its vaguely Spanish guitar strumming and understated beatboxing may as well be a travel ad, but it’s an enjoyable one. “Bibia Bi Ye Ye” is basically “I went to Ghana and wrote a song to show off the one phrase I managed to learn in the local dialect”; imagine Vampire Weekend singing Modest Mouse‘s “Float On” and you’ll get the gist. Ed brings Beoga back for “Nancy Mulligan”, a full on Celtic folk song which is the absolute standout of the bunch – this time about Ed’s paternal grandmother, but from the perspective of his grandfather, daring to cross the Protestant/Catholic divide that was a big no-no in Ireland and go on the lam with her to get married, without which Ed would not be here today. The set winds down with “Save Myself”, another guitar-free ballad that is half cautionary tale and half learning to love yourself before you go about trying to fix other people – I kind of admire it, but don’t really find it as memorable as the other three bonus tracks. This album could easily be bumped up to a B or even a B+ with these four songs replacing tracks 8-11 on the standard edition. Just keep in mind that my final grade doesn’t actually take these into account, despite how much I think they’re worth hearing.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Castle on the Hill $.50
Shape of You $1.25
Galway Girl $1.50
New Man $0
Hearts Don’t Break Around Here $.25
What Do I Know? –$.75
How Would You Feel (Paean) $.50
Supermarket Flowers $1.25
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: