Ed Sheeran ‘Divide’ – Review

19 Mar

Ed Sheehan must be good. There is no other logical reason a scruffy, chubby, ginger, middle class songwriter would currently occupy nine of the top ten spots in the single chart. Right? Is Ed a slippery, sophisticated, Trumpian snake oil salesman or is he the real deal? Most major publications haven’t bothered to find out (though both NME and Rolling Stone have backtracked on early disdain by featuring cover interviews with the singer) because they see no reason to. Ed is a privileged, white male who appeals to middle England – nothing interesting happening there, they conclude.

But we must do better than that. Something in the music of Ed Sheeran taps in to a universal desire. His hooks are clingy enough to lodge in intelligent minds for months on end. His melodies have soundtracked countless wedding dances. Politicians are always talking about the man on the street, well the man on the street listens to Ed Sheeran. People enjoy his music because it sounds familiar yet modern. They’re songs you can imagine appearing in films or soundtracks. There’s a nice mixture of styles, tempos and themes – you can imagine different songs soundtracking different, everyday routines. And even the stranger songs on the album are held together by some absolutely huge sounding pop songs. Mainly, ‘Divide’ will be popular because it’s distinctly pleasant. And pleasant is something most people can get on board with.

In fact ‘Divide’ is an ironic title for an Ed Sheeran album. Few albums are less likely to divide an audience; this is nice, middle of the road pop that is, by design, almost impossible to hate. And whilst it may be hard for some critics to believe, it also appears fairly easy to love. Just ask the fans who have streamed the singles from it literally billions of times. That said, it is fitting that he has chosen mathematical symbols as album titles; few albums this year are likely to be more calculated. Ed is a self confessed music industry nerd who is just as interested in the business side of things as he is the music. He has engineered this album to tick as many boxes, and appeal to as many market areas and target audiences, as possible. Sheeran used to wear his heart on his sleeve, now he’s wearing his ambition there instead.

But if there’s one thing ‘Divide’ proves, its that sometimes artifice and calculation can be nearly as affecting as pure sincerity. I know that the syrupy ‘perfect’ is pure shmultz; It has a prom night, ‘Lady in Red’ quality to it that should be repellant – but isn’t. Nothing about its chord progression, string arrangement or heartfelt sentiment is original – in fact the song is massively cliched and contrived – but packs an emotional wallop that is pretty undeniable. Sheeran himself thinks it will end up being the song, that in generations, he is remembered for. At this stage that might be hard to argue with. There are other warm hearted moments like this as well. ‘Dive’ is a gorgeous doo-wop-esque ballad that highlights Sheeran’s increasingly robust vocals. ‘Supermarket Flowers’ is a moving eulogy for his grandmother that reveals the immediate aftermath of her death in a way that wouldn’t sound completely out of place on the new Mount Eerie record.

Elsewhere he’s moving ever further away from his initial heartbroken sweet spot. In a recent interview, Zane Lowe assumed Sheeran had been influenced by U2 on the ‘Joshua Tree’ kissed ‘Castle on the Hill.’ But he insisted he’d never heard the album, or any other U2 album for that matter. In fact he’d nabbed all the ideas from Snow Patrol’s ‘Fallen Angels’ record. This anecdote sums up Ed Sheeran. In his down to earth way, he has no qualms or hang ups about his perceived uncoolness (which is actually what makes him pretty cool). The fact that he references Snow Patrol (and not just any SP album, but ‘Fallen Angels’, their commercial flop and critical nadir), or in the same interview professes his love for Figtstar, Nizlopi, Damion Rice and The Corrs tells you everything you need to know (EXACTLY say his fans. EXACTLY say the haters).

For such a massive seller, his last record ‘Multiply’ had a significantly disproportionate amount of duds. As well remembered as ‘Sing’ and ‘Thinking Out Loud’ are, does anyone remember ‘Nina’ or ‘Afire Love’? Like ‘Multiply’, ‘Divide’ is a patchy album that features as many throwaways as potential classics. The folky ‘Galway Girl’ (a cynical attempt to appeal to the large Irish fan base) has a fun ‘so bad it’s good’ quality, whilst the likes of ‘What Do I Know’ and ‘Hearts Don’t Break Around Here’ are forgettable in less interesting ways – they’re bland, generic and verging on kitsch. But at least these songs are politely bad. Ed took a year off before recording ‘Divide’ to go travelling, and in its weakest moments the album plays like a kind of Gap Year Travelogue where he bruises the surface of one culture before sailing on to the next destination. ‘Barcelona’ features Spanish guitar and a vaguely Mediterranean vocal chant whilst ‘Biba Be Ye Ye’ is called, well, ‘Biba Be Ye Ye’, and here Ed borrow’s Paul Simon’s exact intonation and some vaguely African guitar licks to riff on some ‘deep’ themes about throwing up on car seats and making mistakes. Yep, It’s pretty bad.

But there’s more imagination here than he may be given credit for. Imagination In the sense that he could be churning out the same generic hooks and production tricks as every other huckster with one eye on Spotify. Sheeran’s references are at least pretty unique for someone in his influential position. At the end of the day, barring some kind of surprise Adele release, ‘Divide’ will be the biggest selling album of this, and possibly next, year. That doesn’t necessarily make it the best album of the year, or even the best Ed Sheeran album, but there are worse albums than one that conveys love and positivity with no filter through classic songwriting, and a heartening mix of tradition and subtle invention.

6/10

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