Ed Sheeran’s ‘÷’ is a Mixed Bag

Ed Sheeran really wants to be seen as a humble, guy-next-door musician, even though he is one of the preeminent figures in the pop world. On his most recent album ÷, the British singer/songwriter uses his boyish charm and often-impassioned singing voice to put together a collection of songs that hit the spot for most mainstream expectations. For more critical audiences, however, even though Sheeran proves he can still craft a catchy hook, ÷ doesn’t offer much that we haven’t already heard from him, both musically and lyrically.

The album’s first song “Eraser” offers a somewhat urgent, pointed perspective that could have acted as a thesis for the album but is never fully realized. He writes about doubters and difficulties in his life and dealings with the music industry. There’s an apparent dichotomy as he rails against the mainstream while creating music that is unquestionably part of it. He writes, “I think that money is the root of all evil and fame is hell,” and “ain’t nobody wanna see you down in the dumps/ because you’re living a dream man, this shit should be fun.” While these notions are entirely valid and could have led to an interesting perspective of deconstructing mainstream pop music culture from the inside, it’s difficult to take Sheeran seriously when he seems to lean into the most mainstream of pop sensibilities throughout the album.

Another noticeable quality of ÷ as a whole is that the music is not particularly sonically cohesive, a trait that perhaps relates to the album’s title but still seems rather arbitrary aside from its relation to his previous album titles referring to mathematical computations. Here he writes about his hometown, his grandparents, a girl from Galway, and the city of Barcelona. When combined with some songs that are starry-eyed and others about scorned exes, it all feels more like a hodgepodge than a concerted effort to provide a diverse musical palette.

One of the stranger pairings of songs that highlights the album’s inconsistencies comes with “Happier,” and “New Man.” On the former, Sheeran offers a mature depiction of a breakup with lines like, “Promise that I will not take it personal, baby/ if you’re moving on with someone new.” He closes the song with the fairly innocuous line, “if he breaks your heart like lovers do/ just know that I’ll be waiting here for you.” In the context of the song, with Sheeran accepting that his ex is happier with someone new, the statement puts a heartwarming punctuation on the song. On “New Man,” things change dramatically as Sheeran spends the track lambasting his ex’s new squeeze for things like going to the gym and having tribal tattoos with unknown meanings. These two songs might have worked on their own, but when set next to each other in the track list, they create a strange dissonance. It’s difficult to believe that he could go from being happy that his ex has moved on to creeping on her Instagram and being jealous of her new boyfriend. The contrast makes it difficult to interpret Sheeran’s lyrics as genuine.

He returns to the down to earth character with “What Do I Know?” where the title alone suggests a level of innocence. It’s a harmless song about changing the world with music, love, and understanding. He plays up the innocent persona, with references to his “daddy” and to himself as a boy. He also makes reference to the fact that he has no university degree, a fact that is brought up more than once on ÷. It’s just interesting to note that while using his immense platform to write about peaceful living is admirable, he again felt the need to paint himself as the humble musician, sitting there writing tunes while others worry about stock portfolios.

With his now vast fame and strong musical abilities, ÷ will most likely be a huge success for Ed Sheeran. His reliance on live musicians over electronics in a pop setting is also a welcome variance from many mainstream pop acts. Anyone hoping to hear him break out into new musical territory, however, will be disappointed. He appears to be a musician still grappling with his stardom. And at his age, that feeling is entirely understandable. He seems torn between the desire to maintain a level of modesty in his music and catering entirely to mainstream expectations. One could say the conflict has left his music divided.

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