There’s little that needs to be said to introduce Ed Sheeran, being the pop staple that he is. His debut studio album, +, and particularly its lead single, The A Team, launched the young singer-songwriter into instant commercial success in his home country, and the subsequent years of increased recognition saw his influence spread overseas. This first album saw a mixture of unadorned, acoustic-based pop songs with some more upbeat tracks, wherein Sheeran would lay down a looped beat, over which he would spit some vanilla, white boy rap verses and come through with a catchy hook, a blueprint which has maintained a consistent level of radio airplay for the musician. Indeed, I don’t think anyone can deny Sheeran his unique sound and down to earth persona that has unequivocally contributed to his huge commercial success and, as a result, the singer has seemingly been perfectly content with resting on his laurels, with his sophomore album, x, signifying little change of direction for the artist. Indeed, his latest album, ÷, is also limited in the ways in which Sheeran seeks to develop his sound. Occasional tracks allude to influences from styles of music that the singer has seldom referenced on his previous material, but for the most part, these songs adhere closely to the formula established on Sheeran’s debut. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with this in principle, in execution, some of these songs are amongst the musician’s most nondescript and forgettable, at times sounding more like one of the many Ed Sheeran rip-offs to have emerged since his rise to fame than the real deal. Few of the songs on ÷ display glaring flaws, but there is most definitely a lack of scope and direction on this album that makes for some mixed results. From a fan’s perspective, I imagine there’s little not to like here, but from a critical perspective, Sheeran’s latest record raises questions regarding his future as an artist and the amount of time for which he will be able to maintain a healthy interest in his work if he continues down this path.
Eraser opens the album with one of Sheeran’s semi-rapped acoustic cuts, and it stands out as one of the better songs on ÷. The beat is founded on a loop featuring duelling acoustic guitars — one taking the lead and one providing chords — that are used to good effect and are built on effectively throughout the song’s runtime. During the verses, both Sheeran’s flow and bars are rather rudimentary, but the addition of intermittent backing harmonies and instrumental flourishes compensate for this. Whilst Eraser exhibits no real progression for Sheeran as an artist, it’s one of the better examples of the way in which he is sometimes able to reapply the blueprint established on his previous works to create some familiar, but nevertheless effective, songs of the same ilk. The second song on the album, Castle on the Hill, which was one of the first songs premiered in promotion of ÷, conveys a slightly reinvented side to Sheeran’s music; a side that is based around rather classic-sounding pop rock guitar work, with soft sung verses that build up into anthemic, radio-friendly choruses. In this regard, Castle on the Hill is largely successful, with the echoey guitar being evocative of many a popular pop rock band, and the wistful reminiscence of childhood memories fitting into the mould of many chart-topping singles to have seen great success both on the charts and mainstream radio stations. Then again, this song is sonically more redolent of other popular artists than it is of Sheeran himself, with it being hard to listen to this song without it evoking an air of bands like Coldplay, Train or even U2. I feel that this leaves Sheeran in somewhat of an awkward position, as his individuality comprises a large portion of his pop appeal, and pursuing a sound that is too clearly influenced by other popular musicians could damage the musical identity that the singer has created for himself over the last six years.
Indeed, certain tracks featured on ÷ seemingly latch onto specific trends that have recently seen popularity in the music industry. The other teaser track initially released upon the announcement of this album, Shape of You, for instance, shamelessly rides the coattails of the dancehall fad that has seen the likes of Drake and his protégés dominate the charts in recent years, which explains why it was likely chosen as a single leading up to the release of Sheeran’s latest studio effort. Whilst there’s little wrong with this song at its core, it comes across as a very superficial attempt at mixing the singer’s usual semi-rapped vocal delivery with a dancehall rhythmic structure that makes for a largely forgettable song. Indeed, quite a large portion of the material on this record displays few fundamental flaws, but is nevertheless limited in producing a variety of memorable moments as a result of the extent to which some of these songs feel like more of the same for Sheeran. As an example, Dive takes the form of a soft and steady ballad, very much in the style of some of the singer’s previous singles, most notably Thinking Out Loud, but lacks the forceful and distinctive vocal melodies that led to the success of such songs. New Man follows an almost identical blueprint to many of Sheeran’s previous semi-rapped, semi-sung tracks, but his performance is far less memorable than on songs like You Need Me, I Don’t Need You or This City. Galway Girl shows a more interesting application of this formula as, in keeping with its title and lyrical topic, the instrumental arrangement incorporates some celtic influences that are executed relatively successfully, and certainly fortify the song as a stand-out moment in the tracklisting. There are also a handful of rather by the book ballads on ÷, such as Happier and Perfect, that are most definitely pretty and display some of Sheeran’s most impassioned performances on the record, but they also retain few interesting elements that make them particularly discernible from the host of other songs in the same vein that the singer has released. Out of these songs, however, Supermarket Flowers most definitely leaves an impression on the listener, as a result of its intimate, solo piano format that complements Sheeran’s heartrending performance that deals with the death of his grandmother. What’s more, the way in which the singer-songwriter ruminates over his loss makes for a song that is not solely memorable as a result of it dealing with such a mournful topic, but also because some incredibly well-written lines are featured. Indeed, the resolution of the piece could be summed up in its beautifully sentimental closing line, “I know / That when God took you back he said, “Hallelujah / You’re home””. Ultimately, whilst many of these songs are perfectly sound at their core, Sheeran’s lack of a willingness to expand his musical stylings has highlighted that he is running the risk of many of these new songs being overshadowed by his previous work and, indeed, it’s often the few pieces that do push the boat out ever so slightly that leave more of an impression on the listener.
÷ is, overall, a mixed release that raises questions regarding Sheeran’s ability to rehash his pre-established blueprint and apply it in a way that is not tired and forgettable, but interesting and memorable. For the most part, this new record consists of songs that are competently written and display occasional quirks that may make certain moments stand out for one reason or another, but many of these cuts also stress a need for the artist to broaden his horizons by dabbling with some other ideas. Songs like Castle on the Hill demonstrate that Sheeran doesn’t have to take himself completely outside of his comfort zone in order to come through with a track that covers ground previously unexplored by the singer, even if the end product is nevertheless a rather safe one. There are a few songs that adhere to the cut and dried Ed Sheeran formula that are nonetheless followed through with enough substance as to not come across as banal, but unfortunately, a significant portion of these songs edge towards being mundane as a result of their familiarity. Generally speaking, ÷ is a very safe record for Sheeran that occasionally suffers as a result, with a handful of these songs being merely passable in the broader context of the artist’s discography. Whilst this is a mixed release, there are enough good moments for it to fall on the positive side of the fence, but this album nevertheless feels like a question mark concerning Sheeran’s position in the music industry going into the future. Whilst I hope that the singer develops more of an explorative attitude on future releases, it seems that he is fairly content with remaining settled in his place in the music industry currently.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6/10