So much for “nice guys finish last.” Less than five years into his career, 26-year-old singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran has achieved popotheosis, completing his evolution from a corner-pub troubadour (and occasional Taylor Swift collaborator) to a Platinum-selling everyman. Don’t let dude’s aw-shucks temperament fool you. A global ascent this rapid necessitates Machiavellian tactics: deploying basic chord progressions, hummable hooks, and easily-relatable tales of breakups and makeups in order to satisfy his audience’s insatiable hunger for musical and lyrical ethos.
Taken in context alongside the bloated fantasies pushed by his competitors (The Weeknd’s coke-fueled bacchanals, Bruno Mars’ 24-karat Don Juan escapades), Sheeran’s barfly narratives represent a rare, honest view from the top: safe, low-stakes escapism courtesy of a Nice Guy with a guitar. Contrary to its title, ÷ (pronounced “Divide”) – Sheeran’s third album and first since 2014’s breakout release x – doesn’t push his art into new territory. Instead, it relocates the Sheeran show to a bigger, brighter stage, doubling down on its predecessor’s quirky folk-pop without challenging the listener’s preconceived sensibilities (with regards to both his own music and pop praxis writ large). If you’ve got any lingering doubts that the artist’s swinging hard forat the fences this time, a glance at the roster of veteran producers (Benny Blanco, Mike Elizondo, and Ryan Tedder) and guest performers (Jessie Ware, John Mayer, and Eric Clapton, the last of whom is credited as “Angelo Mysterioso”) should do the trick.
Sheeran spends the entirety of ÷’s 12-song track listing (16 if you count the deluxe edition) flipping between two styles: rousing pop anthems destined for radio success (“Shape of You” and “Castle on the Hill” have accomplished this already) and snoozy ballads destined for rotation in the aisles of your local CVS (“Dive”, “How Would You Feel (Paean)”). Needless to say, the former mode proves far more interesting than the latter, the album’s sole source of enduring impact. “Shape of You” and “Galway Girl”’s marimbas and violins, respectively offer refreshing breaks from the standard four-on-the-floor fare; “Eraser” nods to late ‘90s pop, with syncopated percussion, drum machine flourishes, and Sheeran’s Timberlake-esque croon on the chorus. It’s too bad he situates that compelling hook within a stiffly rapped, trope-laden reflection on his newfound success. (Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “I think that money is the root of all evil, and fame is hell.”)
It’s one of the most sacrosanct tenets of sonic physics and album construction — every sugar rush inevitably comes crashing down, so seamless transitions are a must. If Timberlake’s classic Futuresex/Lovesounds represents the pinnacle of pacing for a contemporary pop LP, then ÷’s the nadir, a record saddled with a persistent case of musical hypoglycemia. Each spike of upbeat pop inevitably nosedives into down-tempo, treacle balladry. The stomping “Castle on the Hill” kowtows to “Dive”’s tired blues; “Shape of You” breaks the lethargic spell shortly thereafter – but only momentarily, before we’re shooed off the dance floor for “Perfect”, another slow jam.
These dynamic oscillations aren’t just grating. Each passing cycle saps a little more life from the record, until we’re left with background music, fluff that goes in one ear and out the other. That includes the lyrics, which run the gamut from sentimental (closer “Supermarket Flowers”, which Sheeran wrote in memory of his grandmother, paints a vivid portrait of bereavement with all the mundane details, right down to packing up the “Get Well Soon” cards and throwing away the hospital flowers), to rote (“We could change this whole world with a piano”), to downright creepy (“My bed sheets smell like you”). Then again, considering how much of the album Sheeran spends in friend-zone woe-is-me mode (“Nursing a bottle and telling myself/ You’re happier, aren’t you?”; “You used to hold my hand/ And when we sipped champagne out of cider cans/ I guess if you were Lois Lane, I wasn’t Superman”), perhaps that’s a benefit in disguise.
Essential Tracks: “Castle on the Hill”, “Shape of You”