That the biggest male pop star in the world is currently an unassuming, guitar wielding, ginger lad from Hebden Bridge is surely a sign of the times. Perhaps we’re tired of rap’s ostentatious displays of wealth or indie’s boring pretensions of nonplussed cool as well as the airbrushed, no-flaws-allowed aesthetic of modern pop. Sheeran offers an antidote to all of this. His image is an anti-image based on expensive clothes that look like they were bought from Topman, ruffled hair that gives the impression he just got out of bed, and songs that lack the heavy production layered on most chart hits. That all of this is likely just as calculated as with any other pop star doesn’t seem to matter. Ed Sheeran is adored because he offers authenticity, or at least some version of it.
÷, Sheeran’s third album, sees him continue in the same vein as his previous two efforts with an LP full of breathy acoustic ballads. After all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? This might disappoint fans who had been expecting something a little more experimental, however. Sheeran’s comeback single, ‘Shape Of You’ suggested a departure from schmaltzy guitar weepies with its dancehall twinge and marimba percussion. Even for Sheeran’s biggest detractors, ‘Shape Of You’ was near impossible not to enjoy, or at least get out of your head. Sadly, the rest of the album lacks any such flair.
Slow, plodding ballads remain the order of the day on ÷, Sheeran in a pensive, sentimental mood throughout his third studio effort. From the corny guitar solo of ‘How Does It Feel (Paen)’ to the trite save-the-world truisms on ‘What Do I Know?’, the album is relentlessly earnest throughout, offering little respite from dreary, samey guitar schmoozes.
But that isn’t to say there isn’t any greatness here, you just have to sift through a lot of rubbish to find it. ‘Supermarket Flowers’ is a delicate elegy to Sheeran’s grandmother that rejects any fancy lyricism in favour of matter-of-fact honesty. The result is a genuinely touching track that sees Sheeran at his most vulnerable. Elsewhere there’s ‘New Man’, a sneering assessment of men with tribal tattoos and bleached arseholes. Ironically, these are exactly the kind of men likely to pop on an Ed Sheeran album before trying to sex their girlfriends. Though similar sentiments have been expressed in countless other tunes, the track nonetheless shows that Sheeran can write clever, funny lyrics when he’s taking a break from the drawn out ballads.
A persistent problem with ÷ is its clumsy mishmash of styles. Sheeran is at his best when he’s sticking to his grime influences, delivering lyrics in fast bursts over his guitar, as seen on the aforementioned ‘New Man’. But too often Sheeran strays into territory he has no business being in. There’s the Spanish guitars on ‘Barcelona’ and ‘Eraser’ and the Irish jig vibes of ‘Nancy Mulligan’ and ‘Galway Girl’. While sometimes this pays off (‘Eraser’ is surely a mega-hit in waiting), at others it sounds out of place and muddled. Still, it makes for a nice break from the relentless, charmless ballads.
Listening to ÷, one is left with the impression that it would be vastly improved by a big pair of scissors. Several tracks should have been left on the cutting room floor, from ‘Perfect’ to ‘Happier’, or should have at least been flogged off to boy bands who might have made a few quid from a Sheeran-penned single. All in all, ÷ is an underwhelming listen, a slog and a drag. Given Sheeran’s cosy friendship with Stormzy, his collaborations with Beyoncé and Giggs, it wasn’t unreasonable to expect something a little more exciting than this. But Sheeran has stuck to his tried and tested formula, his sights set firmly on another huge-selling album, and no doubt about to get it.