By: Michelle Guthrie
I always appreciate singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran for his ability to twist his simple “guy with acoustic guitar” get-up, and his third studio album ÷ doesn’t stray from his experimental style. But while there are outstanding moments where he either incorporates a traditional Irish sound or a hip-hop fusion, it’s still riddled with throw-away acoustic ballads that remind me of what every male singer with an acoustic guitar sounds like.
“Eraser” starts off the album with a bang, featuring Sheeran rapping verses about the struggles of transitioning from small town life to stadium fame, while a double acoustic riff ripples throughout the track. “Castle on the Hill” follows with a more nostalgic feeling, seamlessly contrasting the brashness of the previous track with soft imagery of Sheeran’s childhood.
“Dive” has a bluesy style, with bass and guitars creating a swaying melody behind Sheeran’s vocals. It reminds me of those generic slow songs they play at high school dances. From here on out, the album follows a structure of peaks and valleys, where the peaks are upbeat tracks and the valleys are slow tracks.
The album picks itself back up from “Dive” with “Shape of You,” with a repetitive electronic xylophone rhythm that gives it a catchy pop hook. Sheeran combines low vocals with some mellower rapping, which makes it sound like a nightclub anthem in all the right ways.
I fell asleep again as Sheeran enters the slow ballad “Perfect.” Sure, it showcases how beautifully he can sing without overbearing backing instruments, but the lyrics are boring and passable and the simple guitar and violin accompaniment don’t add anything particularly ear-catching to the song.
Things get interesting again with “Galway Girl.” Sheeran raps over an Irish fiddle backing the track along with his signature sweeping acoustic guitar, which makes it swinging, catchy, and unique. This is arguably one of the most versatile songs on the entire album.
“Happier” falls short in the same ways “Perfect” does. It’s slow, mopey, and doesn’t bring anything interesting to the table. It’s followed by “New Man,” which is also mopey but upbeat, with Sheeran rapping about someone he likes who has a new man.
“Hearts Don’t Break Around Here” is a dreamy love song, with delicate acoustic guitar string plucking and hazy vocals. It’s one of the better slow songs on the album, mostly because of the intimate and poetic songwriting.
“What Do I Know?” is a slightly sarcastic commentary on the relationship between musicians and “real world” problems such as politics and economy. It takes on a casual busk-y tone, but the lyrics give the track its weight. In the chorus, Sheeran sings, “but lord knows everybody’s talking ’bout exponential growth /and the stock market crashing in their portfolios /while I’ll be sitting here with a song that I wrote /saying love could change the world in a moment /but what do I know?” It’s a preachy song about spreading positivity and love in a world that seems to be filled with hate.
“How Would You Feel (Paean)” is yet again, another throwaway slow track with sappy lyrics and a dragging melody. The non-deluxe album closes with the deeply personal “Supermarket Flowers,” which many fans think is about his mom, but is actually about his late grandmother. While a touching and sweeping tribute, it’s another track I find myself passing over because it sounds like the exact song you would hear at a funeral, and it’s depressing as well as bland.
In the deluxe version of ÷, there are four extra songs: “Barcelona,” “Bibia Be Ye Ye,” “Nancy Mulligan,” and “Save Myself.” “Barcelona” begins with Sheeran literally breathing the rhythm in short calculated breaths, before his acoustic guitar enters with a wavy riff. It’s a happy-go-lucky song that sounds like it belongs in a cheery romantic comedy.
“Bibia Be Ye Ye” features sharp drum hits and a tropical-sounding guitar riff, but is mostly mediocre. “Nancy Mulligan,” on the other hand, once again brings about a standout Irish twist, where this time, it isn’t a fusion of two styles like “Galway Girl.” This is an original traditional Irish folk tune about Sheeran’s grandparents. It’s clever the way he combines the music of his ancestors and his heritage to tell his own stories.
÷ ends with the slow “Save Myself,” which is Sheeran venting about how people always leave and how he must always love and save himself first from now on. Overall, it’s a sobering end to an overall mediocre album that tells listeners that above all, self-love and self-care is important.
Sheeran is talented enough to create versatile songs such as “Eraser” and “Galway Girl,” but is still held back by the generic sappy love songs that bring the quality of the album down. I appreciate that he wove upbeat songs with slow songs in a peaks and valleys fashion, but it doesn’t hide that the majority of the valleys aren’t as strong and impactful as the peaks. But despite this, he is still able to create a decent album with a few surprises hidden amid the mediocre tracks.
“Shape of You”
(Featured image: ÷, Atlantic Records)