The bulk of tracks Ed Sheeran had put out is a refusal of any appointed brand. One can’t say that Ed Sheeran is a folk rapper, a crooner, or a pop artist. It would be true, however, to say that he is very good in all those three, and then some more.
Still, a third album pushes patterns to the fore, and despite his aversion to repeating himself musically, formula sticks to his music like a leech. Much of his music clings to a certain formula, sure, but to call them formulaic is an unfair assessment. It can’t be argued that between his spittin’ bars and swoon-worthy croonings from his previous records + (Plus) and x (Multiply), Sheeran’s music is distinctly charismatic, something of a rarity in today’s pop/poppish offerings.
This, however, doesn’t let ÷ (Divide) off the hook, an assured but ultimately prudent effort that sweeps awards in the way of Adele’s 25. Putting the two side-by-side makes sense, too. They’re both from the G.B., sings gorgeously, and are both incessantly “adorkable.” And, right now, adorkable sells.
That isn’t to take away from the record’s success, something it achieves by unleashing a barrage of—granted—queasy, but also earnest, impassioned, and meaningful tracks. The new record presents Sheeran at his smoothest and most emotionally honest.
Prior to the album’s release, Sheeran had came out with two singles—”Castle On The Hill”, a foursquare ballad that echoes Future Islands’ bittersweet look-backs, and “Shape Of You”, a sultry, unabashedly ratchet piece of Caribbean dance-punk. By the time ÷ (Divide) is released, these tracks have already been etched in listeners’ heads, ushering one’s listen from the front to the rear-end of the track-list, where even more gems await.
A lot of these tracks talk directly about Sheeran’s sudden rise to fame, and his unrelenting (dis-)placement in the first-rate pop crew. The placement of the album’s opener, “Erasure”, then, is not arbitrary. “I’m well aware of certain things that can destroy a man like me,” he sings, pointing to how popularity has changed things for him. “I used to think that nothing could be better than touring the world with my songs/I chased the picture-perfect life, I think they painted it wrong.”
Where his contemporaries maintain a preserved-until-tainted-too-early branding, Sheeran doesn’t exactly conform, which is why tracks like “New Man”, a song that unabashedly trash-talks in his distinct spit and flow an ex’s new beau also reeks of destructive jealousy. It breaks away from the idea that “Thinking Out Loud” imprinted, dangerously tipping Sheeran off the abyss that is Sappytown.
Swerving to political terrains, Sheeran pushes “What Do I Know?”, a song that comments on a number of issues. This kind of track is now kind of a staple, even awkward Ed knows this to be true. Even odder is the compelling “Bibia Be Ye Ye”—a true force that comes late in the album like a deus ex machina—even if it is compelling only for this very reason. These are admirable efforts to break away from what an Ed Sheeran record sounds like, but not much else.
While ÷ (Divide) will unlikely make two clashing sides, it is—ultimately—a finely made record.