British singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran just turned 26 and he’s already one of the world’s biggest pop stars thanks to two mega-smash albums and a string of chart-topping singles.
All signs point to a third blockbuster with the just-released “÷” (pronounced “divide”). There’s zero doubt that “÷” will storm the Billboard 200 and debut at no. 1, as did his 2014 release “x.” Sheeran is already ensconced at the top of the U.S. singles chart, where “Shape of You” has reigned for six weeks. Sheeran made Hot 100 history in January when he became the first artist to have two songs debut in the Top 10 the same week: “Shape of You” at no. 1, and “Castle on the Hill” at no. 6.
Sheeran is riding high thanks to an earnest blend of folky guitar-pop with brushes of modern electronica, a winsomely photogenic appearance, mild and reedy tenor vocals that practically ooze sincerity and the glossy commercial sheen of his music. Of course, like many mainstream artists who reach such complete cultural saturation, Sheeran has his share of detractors who are dismissive of his mild-mannered music and persona. The condescension by “serious” critics and music aficionados is so toxic that it’s almost enough to make one like Sheeran out of spite — if only his music could be taken out of the equation.
Don’t expect great depth of feeling or originality on most of “÷.” Sheeran dabbles with different sonic flavors, but overall he stays within his same tried-and-tested formula. He opens with a bit of quasi-rapping on “Eraser,” an autobiographical track about the trials and tribulations of being a rich and famous pop star. “I think that money is the root of all evil/and fame is hell,” he declares. Poor guy. Yeah, it sucks to be adored by millions, richer than God, and still be all sad and misunderstood.
Sheehan injects some Celtic flavor on “Galway Girl,” another song on which he attempts to rap during the verses and then sings a soaring chorus over lines of fiddle that seem more like appropriation than homage. It’s cultural window dressing. “Shape of Things” is already guaranteed to be one of the year’s biggest singles, and it’s easy to see why. Sheehan develops a pseudo-Caribbean vibe with an electronic marimba-like hook and a funky groove to back up the irresistibly upbeat, radio-friendly melody.
“Castle on the Hill” is a nostalgic rocker with an anthemic, arena-rock chorus that will appeal to the more rock-inclined members of Sheehan’s fan-base (assuming any exist). “Dive” is a bluesy ballad on which Sheeran goes for broke on a full-throttle attempt at an impassioned vocal, but it comes off ponderous and overwrought, emotionally on par with something we might hear from Creed. “What Do I Know?” is a peppy acoustic pop ditty that comes and goes without much impact, but it’s melodic bounciness will surely find enthusiastic support at pop radio.
As one would expect, there are no shortage of ballads. “Perfect,” with its sparse electronic beats, unobtrusive acoustic guitar and flowery strings, will be a monster hit for sure. “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here” is lovely and sentimental, while “How Would You Feel (Paean)” is highlighted by guest John Mayer’s dulcet guitar solo. The finale “Supermarket Flowers” is the strongest moment on the album, a genuinely moving portrait of loss and grief that Sheehan wrote in tribute to his late grandmother.
There are enough commercial tracks on “÷” to keep Sheehan riding high on the charts for many months to come. The album may be somewhat bland and safe, but it’s generally well crafted and there are a few excellent moments. Sheeran is undoubtedly talented. His music isn’t for everyone, but if you liked him before, you’ll like the new album.
Providing moments of happiness and refuge via music, especially at a tumultuous time when so many are riven by woe and anxiety, is a fantastic and profound gift.