Since his breakthrough release “Plus” in 2011, Ed Sheeran has had no problems appealing to the masses. With his everyman relatability, humble beginnings, and fun and earnest pop songs, it’s no surprise that he’s one of the biggest artists in the world today.
“÷”—Sheeran’s third and newest release—has naturally been surrounded with hype and high expectations across the board, with even Sheeran himself prefacing its release by saying it’s the “best thing I have made thus far.”
“Eraser” opens the album with a reflection on fame and wealth delivered in a signature Sheeran style: rapped vocals atop upbeat acoustic instrumentals. The sound presented here is not an entirely new one for Sheeran, but even from the very first song something feels different. On the horizon of “Eraser” is a mirage of concentrated top-40 clichés that corporealize themselves in the form of distant “heys” in the choruses and a lingering feeling that “Eraser” is just a rehashed version of Sheeran’s own “Take it Back.”
The very same mirage becomes fully realized on “Castle on a Hill,” one of the album’s lead singles. Here, Sheeran evokes “Wilder Mind”-era Mumford and Sons, complete with four-on-the-floor foot-stomping bass drum and pitifully nostalgic lyrics delivered with baseless gravity. In the chorus, he really “lets it rip,” straining his voice to sing of country lanes with a calculated grit. He does, after all, need some way to make this song evoke an emotional response, because the Chainsmokers-featuring-Halsey-style name dropping of “Tiny Dancer” certainly isn’t going to do it.
The next track, “Dive,” the fifth track on the album, “Perfect,” and the eleventh track, “How Would You Feel (Paean),” can be mentioned in the same breath due to their identical musical function. Every Ed Sheeran album until the end of mankind will likely be graced with their own “Thinking Out Loud” clones, much to the adoration of wedding playlist curators. These two tracks from “÷ ” answer to this demand, with their blue-eyed, Marvin Gaye impersonating soulfulness likely to tactfully melt the hearts of listeners for years to come. The lyrics here all see Sheeran longing in one way or another, but not with any more meaning or weight than any of his earlier slideshow-core materials.
“Shape of You,” a song that took Sheeran’s producers two months to convince him to include on the album, is the album’s proudly soulless pop pinnacle. Ed isn’t playing the part of the gentle lover here, but instead personifying the club-going personality that occupied pop songs a decade ago, a personality that to his own admission is not him. It’s just confusing why Sheeran, a man who found incredible success making music he truly felt and truly loved, felt the need to sell his soul here on his third release that was essentially guaranteed to be successful.
Things look up from here though with the right merry jig that is “Galway Girl.” While the gimmick of Irish music influence is executed almost entirely in stereotypes, it does introduce some variety that integrates well into Sheeran’s sound. This song is on its way to being absolutely massive commercially that serves as a glimmer of hope that when a big artist tries something different it can result in their biggest successes.
Do not fret, however, because Sheeran isn’t planning on changing too much. “Happier” and “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here” bring back the pared down acoustic musings of songs like “Firefly,” “Tenerife Sea,” and “Photograph” from his earlier albums. This is an area where Sheeran performs well, but more experimentation here would be a much more welcome addition to his sound than the overripe pop tropes of “Shape of You” and “Eraser.”
“New Man” brings back the vibe established by the album’s earlier saccharine atrocities but this time in the form of a fire-spitting “why have him when you can have me” takedown of “asshole-bleaching” dudebros everywhere. We get it, Ed, her new guy is a douchebag, but throwing this social media–era sassiness in the middle of all of your heartfelt crooners on the track list undermines the effectiveness of both. Sure, the track is funny at parts and can be catchy too, but in context especially it just feels obnoxious.
There are, however, a couple stronger songs on this closing half of the standard edition of the album. “What Do I Know?” sees Sheeran reflecting on the state of the world and his ability to have a voice in it in a pretty heartfelt way that is complemented by the song’s peppy and light instrumental. One of the album’s strongest songs is its closer “Supermarket Flowers,” a song about Sheeran’s mother that features some gorgeous arrangements and comes across as very genuine, stemming from Sheeran’s own feelings instead of those of his producers and co-writers.
The deluxe edition of the album consists of four additional songs. Three of these, “Barcelona,” “Bibia Be Ye Ye,” and “Nancy Mulligan,” are a reflection of Sheeran’s recent travels around the world in the form of songs destined for use in vacation destination commercials. Upon listening, “Barcelona” and “Bibia Be Ye Ye” conjure up images of kids jumping into pools, beautiful people running on the beach, and helicopter shots of tropical islands and cruise ships. “Nancy Mulligan,” despite being about Sheeran’s grandparents, presents an equally EPCOT-tier perspective of the world as the other two tracks. If all Ed Sheeran got out of his travels is stereotypes and Party City St. Paddy’s Day bargain bin pandering, it might be best for him to not try and turn these experiences into meaningful songs.
It’s rare that an artist sells out after already achieving massive commercial success, but even when that does happen it isn’t a guarantee that their new material will be pop vapidity. Taylor Swift went pop with “Red” and “1989,” but her stylistic shift felt like something she wanted to do, not something she thought would sell well. Ed Sheeran is losing the very things that make him a compelling pop star, with hubris and swagger replacing his former honesty and down-to-earth image. He’s topping charts like never before, though, so more power to him.