I might be the only person in the world aside from his relatives who believes that Ed Sheeran is destined for pop songwriting greatness. Six years into his professional career and he’s already built quite the name for himself, but not quite a sound. Sheeran has always made a point to highlight his versatility as a songwriter, whether it be sweet-but-basic singer-songwriter tunes or confusingly hard-hitting Brit hip-hop that dances too closely to Macklemore cringiness. However, no matter how many hits he seems to be associated with, there’s a massive amount of bland junk that surrounds his overlong records.
Nevertheless, his sultury, melodic debut single “The A-Team” earned him a Song of the Year nomination and a Grammy performance with Elton John in 2012. Similarly in 2015, his song “Thinking Out Loud” won him Song of the Year and Best Pop Solo Performance, both against his former collaborator Taylor Swift. And that’s where Ed Sheeran will likely always succeed — collaboration. The song he wrote for Justin Bieber, “Love Yourself”, allowed him to essentially go off the grid and take the entire year off from social media, his phone, and life as a whole. It wasn’t until earlier in January this year that he resurfaced with his lead single, the formulaic but apparently successful “Shape of You”.
Which brings us to Divide, the third album following Plus and the massively successful Multiply. With Multiply, he was able to more or less successfully show his dynamic range in songwriting, going from gooey cheese to punchline rap in a matter of seconds, which for a time worked. The album’s singles, “Sing”, “Don’t”, “Photograph”, and “Thinking Out Loud” brought out the best of Sheeran. It highlighted his narrative as a husky ginger surrounded by the most famous and wealthy people in the world. To me, there was something charming about a small homeless British kid rapping over a loop guitar pedal and singing impassioned and in superlative about love and laziness. With Divide though, he’s now a millionaire and among the most famous pop stars in the world with apparently not a whole lot to say about it.
It took a whopping 8 tracks into its beefy 16 track deluxe album to find a song I would classify as ‘good’, or at least a song worthy of the consistent radio play it’s likely going to achieve (That song is “New Man”, it’s cute, catchy, fun). This album achieves a strange feat by being consistently boring and hookless while also being overly sporadic and eclectic. Divide is so-clearly first draft Sheeran. Basic songwriting, basic lyrics. It’s likely this album may not even make it through a whole spin at a local Starbucks, let alone a bedroom or car.
Still, not all hope is lost. “Shape of You”, for all its unsexy blandness that probably sounds like a Maroon 5 album track (scientists have still yet to uncover what those songs are), is still fun to sing along to in dance-remix form in public settings. There’s enough here to last Ed through the 18 month album cycle (“Galway Girl” and “Barcelona” might be weird enough to be something). Let’s hope he’s got a few songs on Harry Styles’ debut record, or Ed Sheeran’s complacency will get the best of him. There may never be a time where an Ed Sheeran song doesn’t sound like a John Mayer/Jason Mraz/Justin Timberlake/Macklemore mishmash, but it’s about past time for him to figure it out.
Divide by Ed Sheeran 4/16 enjoyable songs, 25%