Life, man. It’s a highway. It’s a trip. It passes you by. Just ask Ed Sheeran. In the four years since his inescapable blockbuster ÷, he married his childhood sweetheart and had a daughter. Sheeran has hit the ripe age of 30 and while he still indulges in the occasional pint down at the bro-tel, dude’s on diaper duty, and proud of it. All of these big changes loom large across Sheeran’s latest album, =, from the literal first words out of his mouth. “I have grown up, I am a father now/Everything has changed, but I am still the same somehow,” he dramatically declares in the opening seconds of the album on “Tides,” a soaring arena rocker about how life changes, like tides.
So who is this different-but-not-really version of Sheeran, other than unwaveringly heavy-handed? For starters, he’s fully embraced the synths that he’s been flirting with since the start of his career. Throughout most of =, Sheeran’s trusty acoustic guitar is gathering dust somewhere, abandoned in favor of the flashy 1980s pop and R&B-lite that is currently dominated by the Weeknd. Two years after he dabbled in dancehall with Justin Bieber and rapped alongside Eminem and 50 Cent, Sheeran has decided to rush the charts on his own once more, without any guests. Lead single “Bad Habits” is a Bronski Beat ripoff that’s all late nights, neon lights, and empty conversations. As suggested by an ominous synth line and a vampiric music video, the whole thing is meant to be a little spooky, a little edgy. But despite Sheeran’s fangs, “Bad Habits” has zero bite. It’s the same deal with “Shivers,” an unfortunately catchy song about dancing “’til the sunlight cracks” and not much more.
Over the first decade-or-so of his career, Sheeran has gamely played the part of pop’s biggest dweeb, a self-proclaimed underdog who appealed to moms and teenage girls alike. Once in a while he would attempt to poke a hole in this nice guy image by swiping his claws at a wanton ex, her swole new boyfriend, or the music industry. But that was the old Ed. On =, there’s a silver lining to every relationship gone sour, and every photo is developed in sepia. He’s settled into the comfort zone of songs that will haunt weddings for years to come, like “2step,” in which he raps about “Two-steppin’ with the woman I love.” Even at his most passionate, Sheeran sounds as threatening as a meringue peak.
But then again, who is listening to Ed Sheeran hoping for a little jolt of danger? = doesn’t venture very far beyond the idea that true love can ride out any storm, that a loving embrace can stop time, that happiness can be restored with a single kiss. And = offers plenty of songs that will make someone out there say “aw” while waiting to fill their prescription at a pharmacy. Like “Tides” before it, “Love in Slow Motion” takes the physics of its title literally and tries to freeze a vision of candlelit romance into amber. “Overpass Graffiti” is one of the album’s strongest songs but Sheeran sabotages himself with lyrics that seem destined for an Instagram stock photo: “We’ll never fade like graffiti on the overpass.” (Ever heard of a pressure washer?)
When the slightest whiff of conflict arises on =, it’s quickly brushed away by the reassurance that this too shall pass. “Read my mind, there’ll be ups and downs/But it won’t change a thing between you and I,” he croons on “Stop the Rain,” an optimistic track inspired by an ongoing plagiarism lawsuit. Even a misplaced wedding ring—lost somewhere between “we made love in the sky” and “overslept and missed the Northern Lights”—on the gratingly saccharine “Collide” isn’t cause for concern. Every song does the work for you, the most obtrusive example being a ballad called “The Joker and the Queen” which pushes card game metaphors to their breaking point (“When I fold, you see the best in me”).
These are not songs that invite close listening. Besides, when you do start to dig below the surface, Sheeran’s gestures of supposed depth become glaringly hollow. Women, the most frequent subject of his music, are continuously described as little more than body parts that Sheeran wants to attach himself to. Sheeran’s reliance on clichés is especially unfortunate during the album’s back half, which is where he placed a majority of the songs about death and fatherhood. “Visiting Hours,” an acoustic tribute to Sheeran’s late music mentor, finds the singer wishing he could drop by heaven for a bit and ask for some advice. It’s the one opportunity to approach something dark with a sense of maturity, anger, anything that has shown he has truly grown up. Instead, he imagines death as a young child would, where heaven is a physical place—with visiting hours.
After that comes “Sandman,” a cloying lullaby for Sheeran’s young daughter that would be right at home on a Baby Einstein album. Would you want to watch someone sing an intimate song to their infant for four minutes while you stand there and listen? And would you then want that person to give you a copy of that song so that you could play it back on your own time? These are questions that surely went unexamined amid the fog of a new father’s mind. At any rate, it’s underwhelming that Sheeran’s perspective on fatherhood is as trite as everything else he writes about. Love is forever, heaven is for real, the party never ends. “Ain’t it funny how the simplest things in life can make a man?” he marvels on “First Times.” It sure is, Ed.
Buy: Rough Trade
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