Monday, March 6, 2017

album review: '÷ (divide)' by ed sheeran

The more I listen to Ed Sheeran, the more I'm a little baffled that he is as big as he is, especially in the mainstream.

Now that's not a knock against Sheeran, believe it or not - on average, he's probably released more singles I like than otherwise, because while I was no big fan of 'Sing' or 'Thinking Out Loud' or 'Photograph', I did really come to love 'Don't' and 'Lego House', and that's not even counting his big two singles from his new album, both of which I'd argue are really good. But it's more than the songs at this point, because Ed Sheeran doesn't make a lot of sense as a pop star, especially in recent years, from his look and presentation to his voice to his content! For one he's an acoustic singer-songwriter who isn't really playing to gimmicks beyond an uncanny knack for skipping into R&B and soul and blues and sticking the landing, and for another, his songs have the sort of distinctive detail and character that if anything show more of an auteur voice than a lot of modern pop. And that details matters, because Ed Sheeran is not writing about wealth and success - his stories are often small-scale and character-driven, with messy human framing and a lot of alcohol abuse - he'd be very much at home in the mid-90s adult alternative scene, which is a little bizarre to hear in 2017. Sure, he'll write the boring songs that'll make the young girls cry - he knows what pays the mortgage - but I'm far more interested in the Ed Sheeran that writes 'Don't' or 'Castle On The Hill' or the absolutely stunning 'Afire Love', which to this day remains one of my favourite songs of 2014. And it's amusing to me that Taylor Swift was one of the big forces to propelling Ed Sheeran to popularity around 2013, given that in the beginning she may have tried for populist authenticity and framing but never showed the courage to get raw or real outside of 'Back To December', so where she retreated into pop artifice, for Sheeran it all feels on the table - that's what gives it bite. 

As such, I was very interested in his next album ÷, which has been getting some interesting reviews, with the critical line seeming to hang on whether you buy into Sheeran's authenticity, especially in the detail of his stories. Whether or not that's fair is a different question - I have the suspicion if Sheeran was just any other indie folk songwriter nobody would care to ask - but given that authenticity is a pretty key factor to the emotional throughline of Sheeran's stories, it was always going to be a question. For me, it all came in the execution, and I had reason to hope this would click, so what did we get with ÷?

So here's the thing: I don't doubt that Ed Sheeran is sincere on this record, particularly in his delivery and style - but I can also see why now more than ever it'd be questioned, because this is arguably his most commercial project to date. And I don't precisely mean that as a detractor - indeed, the fact that Ed Sheeran has a solid grasp on making interesting pop song structures is what elevates a significant chunk of his material - but I am more than a little exasperated that given his pop culture clout he didn't take the opportunity to get deeper or darker or weirder, indeed in some cases even pulling away from this territory, and that strikes me as a real missed opportunity.

And to dig into this, we need to start with Ed Sheeran himself. Now from my point of view I've never found his pseudo-rap delivery to be all that bad - he still tries to squeeze a few too many words into his bars, and on songs like 'Eraser' when he doesn't have more melody or groove behind him it can feel more awkward than it should, but it can definitely give him a rougher touch that fits the everyman style that carries into his singing voice. Sure, on songs like 'Galway Girl' or 'New Man' it can feel a little silly at best and obnoxious at worst, but it works for his vocal tone, which can indeed sound raw on songs like 'Castle On The Hill'. And make no mistake, I wish there was a lot more that played in the 'Castle On The Hill' mold - it's not as refined, sure, but I'd take Ed Sheeran playing for rock intensity over playing to sensitive acoustic singer-songwriter any damn day!

And that's where we encounter my first big issue with this record, and yet it's one I could have called from a mile away: in terms of instrumentation, this record plays itself way safer than it needs to, especially when it comes to the acoustic love ballads. Sure, I was amused that Ed Sheeran called up John Mayer for 'How Would You Feel', but Ed Sheeran has always been a more interesting and experimental performer than John Mayer ever dared to be, you don't need to emulate his blandest tendencies to get hits! And yet from the stilted and choppy old-fashioned rhythm of 'Dive' to the organ that opens the midtempo guitar and oddly muffled snap of 'Perfect' that's destined for wedding song territory to the acoustic clumsiness of 'Hearts Don't Break Around Here' to the campfire vibe of 'What Do I Know?', nearly half of this record falls into utterly tepid territory that isn't interesting from an instrumental perspective! What's worse is this that sort of material demands that Sheeran downplays or goes softer, and that to me has always struck as just a poor choice for his vocal tone, especially considering how rigid the percussion lines can feel. If Ed Sheeran is going into softer, acoustic territory, he needs things to be looser, have a bit more groove, which is one reason I'm a little more forgiving to the ragged strumming behind 'Eraser', especially on the prechorus or the wiry beats clashing against the prominent fiddle of 'Galway Girl' - and yes, minus the beat it's basically a Frank Turner retread that borrows from 'To Take You Home' from Love, Ire & Song, but the fact that Ed Sheeran fought tooth and nail to get that song on the record shows a least a desire to pick up a little more personality, he's at least borrowing from a good place. And that's the hilarious thing: when Ed Sheeran does step away from his established style, he tends to stick the landing - the Spanish guitar flourishes on 'Eraser', the U2-esque bombast of 'Castle On The Hill', the odd tropical touches of 'Shape Of You', the piano ballad closer of 'Supermarket Flowers', even the very mid-2000s acoustic balance against muddy handclaps and scratching of 'New Man', these work for me, at least on an instrumental level.

And yet even with that, I'm not quite as sucked into the stories Sheeran is telling on these tracks, and for that we need to dig into lyrics and themes. Now reportedly Sheeran took a year off to travel the world without any social media, working to reconnect with his roots and humanity, and it's also very clear that he seems happier than on his last album.  x dealt with heavier, more introspective themes, specifically alcohol abuse, it's not exactly surprising that this album doesn't cut as deeply in that vein if he has things under control - but on songs like 'Eraser', which plays in very much of a 'more money, more problems', it's clear he's still using it to escape, just minus the closer look. Hell, compare how he handles his grandfather's passing on 'Afire Love' to the sad, more delicate picture of 'Supermarket Flowers' - both are good songs, but the level of unique detail and tragedy on the former is playing in a much heavier ballpark, and resonates a lot more for me. It also doesn't help that while Sheeran's love songs are passable, he can still bring some awkward lyrical choices that move from tepid to questionable. 'Dive' is the most obvious one: besides a very recognizable guitar contribution from Eric Clapton, because somehow Sheeran keeps recruiting his influences to play backup to him, the chorus line 'dive right into you' raises way more questions than it should - yes, I get the subtext, it still sounds ridiculous. 'Happier' was also frustrating: it's a post-breakup track where despite his feelings still lingering he's also clearly acknowledging she's happier with a new guy and he needs to deal with that... until the final lines, where if the new guy breaks her heart, Ed Sheeran will be waiting, and you undo all that mature growth! Granted, this sort of wonky framing also comes in on 'New Man', an interesting case where it's very clear that Sheeran doesn't like being the other guy, especially when it's clear this girl is trying to be something she's not in order to fit a modern veneer of gentrified 'maturity', and yet despite Sheeran's plain contempt for this guy, he's smart enough to frame it as his own jealousy and provide the evidence that this girl is plainly unhappy in this vein given how often she's cheating. Does it still feel catty - absolutely, but the framing is at least good enough to avoid the occasional pandering that shows up in similar songs, often in country music.

But really, the problem with Sheeran's writing on ÷ isn't that it's bad, but more that it feels a bit toothless. Don't get me wrong, from the hookup of 'Shape Of You' to the call outs to hometown friends and girls on 'Galway Girl' and 'Castle On The Hill', there is quality and detail here, arguably some of his best singles, but considering how much potential Sheeran has shown, it irks me how safe a lot of this album plays. And again, I get it if he wants to fill the record with love songs, but make them interesting in their metaphors or stories or melodies, don't default to an ossified style that does nothing for your vocal tone! In other words... I don't think it has the lows of x, but it doesn't have the biggest highs either, which means I'm giving it a very strong 6/10. And look, if you can get more sucked into the romance of Ed Sheeran's love ballads, you'll probably find a big chunk of this record a lot more compelling than I do, but Ed Sheeran could have taken more chances with this project, and I wish he did. The ones he did, check those out, but otherwise... it's a critic-proof record, given his success, and at least the singles are great - at least I'll take that.

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