Ever since he broke onto the scene in 2011 with ‘+’, Ed Sheeran has been an easy target for critics. He’s the prototypical ‘nice guy with a guitar’ in a world full of them. But where as others in this group (Hozier, Passenger) turned out to be one hit wonders, Sheeran has struck gold with this formula; using gentle finger-picked guitar arrangements as a backdrop to easily digestible, largely relatable themes of first loves, grief and yearning.
The Sheeran formula – and his dogged refusual to depart from it – has led to many critics labelling his music ‘trite’ and ‘formulaic’. While these faults have indeed lingered throughout much of his work historically, at this point in his career there’s no doubting his ability to write captivating hooks and narratives. The best music on ‘=’ attempts to recreate the simple charm of Sheeran’s biggest work’s; ‘Visiting Hours’ – while sonically predictable – is the album’s most sincere and emotionally honest track; a three-and-a-half minute communication with a deceased loved one in the form of a song. Sheeran spends much of ‘=’ employing predictable metaphors and evoking memories so universally relatable they become entirely impersonal and hollow, but there’s a refreshing honesty to straightforward confessions like this one about parenthood: “What would you do in my situation? / I hadn’t a clue how I’d even raise them”.
The following track ‘Sandman’ also offers some of the best story-telling here; an ode to his young child, who he tells “You were loved before you had arrived” and reassures “Though there’s rain outside / You’ll be warm and dry”. There’s no doubting the saccharine nature of such lines, but such a sentiment feels fitting and honest when directed towards a young child. Once again, however, one wishes he could find a more inspired sonic pallet from which to address such thoughts.
These Sheeran-by-the-numbers moments, for however frustrating they may seem, actually end up being some of the album’s best; ‘Shivers’ is classic-Ed; well-crafted and incredibly hooky, while ‘Overpass Graffiti’ combines his gift for melody with sincere song-writing (“I will always love you, for what it’s worth”). Even opener ‘Tides’ – which sounds like Springsteen on xanax, all the way down to the referencing of “freight cargo, dot stops and aeroplanes” – is more enjoyable than much of what this album has to offer.
Lead single ‘Bad Habits’ is the album’s big swing and a miss at changing Sheeran’s sound; the result is an over-produced, dated house-pop number that sounds like the work of a lobotomized Abel Tesfaye (The Weeknd). While wannabe hip-hop number ‘2Step’ proves every stereotype about white rappers true.
Worse still, however, are the multiple numbers here that attempt to recreate the highs of Sheeran’s old music and fall well short; tracks like ‘The Joker And The Queen’ and ‘Leave Your Life’ go for a timeless, acoustic sound but instead barely sound finished:- barebones and comatose. Never before has Sheeran sounded so cynical and calculated; ready to pass off music he must know is no good in order to fill the track list.
On the same day, Sheeran released ‘=’, indie-rockers The War on Drugs released their fifth studio album ‘I Don’t Live Here Anymore’; like Sheeran, Adam Granduciel and co have made careers out writing largely accessible, guitar driven, easily digestible songs. But unlike Sheeran, they’ve elevated their music with a wider array of live instrumentation, they’ve progressed artistically with each new release – and Granduciel is a far more masterful employer of his soft but strong voice than Sheeran is here. If there was any justice in this world, it would be The War on Drugs, and not Sheeran, who would be dominating the music landscape between now and when Adele releases her new album.
Best Tracks; ‘Visiting Hours’, ‘Shivers’, ‘Sandman’
Worst Tracks: ‘Bad Habits’, ‘The Joker and The Queen’, ‘Leave Your Life’, ‘Stop The Rain’