Ed Sheeran’s latest effort is aptly named, showcasing his most eclectic work yet…with varying degrees of success
Sheeran emerged from obscurity in 2010 and has since built his brand on acoustic-driven ballads telling the tales of star-crossed lovers and painful losses.
Songs like “The A Team”, “Photograph” and “Thinking Out Loud” won hearts (and awards) with their organic and tender spirit, powered by Sheeran’s raw, natural vocals.
The Englishman’s formula is once again at work in “Divide”, with a few variables thrown in along the way that both disrupt and build upon it.
Audiences will largely fall for tunes such as “Perfect” – which will undoubtedly grace the weddings of millennials across the globe – and “Happier”, but it’s hard to ignore a certain sense of redundancy.
The near-27-year-old singer has stressed genuineness throughout most of his meteoric rise to the top, but a decent chunk of “Divide” simply feels contrived. People crave anecdotal doses of love, desperation and understanding.
Too often on the aforementioned songs and others – “Dive” and “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here” – do those anecdotes boil down to tropes.
Sheeran has grasped the hands of millions of outreached arms and led them to an emotional shredder a hundred times over, but how many times will those same folks endure it before they offer their arms more hesitantly?
Now that’s not to say “Divide” is completely devoid of heart.
“How Would You Feel (Paean)” emits a warm glow sure to elicit nostalgia in many listeners, and it’s the best result born from Sheeran’s original formula. “Supermarket Flowers” is a mournful deep cut about Sheeran’s ill grandmother, and his somber crooning paired with gentle piano claws at the heart strings. “Save Myself”, also piano-driven, discusses the importance of self-care and coming to terms with the occasional asymmetry of charity.
“Castle on the Hill”, one of the first two singles, represents Sheeran’s most compelling work on the album lyrically: expressive, reflective and honest. Musically, it’s a U2-esque offering with simple but catchy chord progressions and tuning, backed by tasteful strokes of acoustic picking and keyboards.
Building upon that, the saving grace on nearly all of the tracks is the composition and production. Sheeran’s guitar work is once again strong, ranging from bubbly to careful to groovy. The addition of a range of other instruments helps build depth.
Sheeran and Co. implement some Gaelic themes, complete with fiddle, flute and bodhran (all courtesy of the group Beoga), and the results are pretty fun.
Combined with his unique form of rap and strong lyrical hooks, Sheeran gives us “Galway Girl”, an upbeat tune that comes just in time to boom through the speakers at college house parties across the country on St. Patty’s Day. The second track with an Irish flare, “Nancy Mulligan”, is more subdued and traditional, as it tells the love story of Sheeran’s grandmother.
There is also “Barcelona”, a getaway number that brings in peppy flute and alto saxophone.
Of course, Sheeran can’t help himself as his rap alter ego also takes center stage on “New Man” and the album’s opener, “Eraser.” They follow his typical pattern of snapping back at those who he feels have wronged him while touting the strength of his own being.
In the end, Sheeran’s third album and its congruent singles will top just about every chart there is to be mounted. However, its large scope doesn’t distract from its shallowness. The 16-track cavalcade is an entertaining trot for a time, but it’s likely that only a handful of its tracks will remain fastened to people’s regular playlists, a hiccup oh so familiar to most pop outfits.
It’s a shame, too, because Sheeran is truly one of today’s top artists both musically and creatively. It’d be wise of the people to expect a better effort out of him next time around, and it’d be wise of Sheeran to heed the title of the next and “Subtract” a bit in order to re-discover a better way to utilize what made him so popular nearly a decade ago.