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Ed Sheeran – = Review

October 30, 2021 | Posted by David Hayter
Ed Sheeran - =
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Ed Sheeran – = Review  

Love him or hate him, Ed Sheeran is a man of his word. Back in 2012 he promised he would find his audience and release three original albums named after mathematical symbols before delivering a collection of duets with the artists who inspire him – and that is exactly what he did. He just so happened to conquer the world and become the most successful solo artist (not named Adele) on the planet in process. So what’s next for the everyman superstar? No 6 Collaborations Project is firmly in the rear-view mirror and we have entered the stage of Sheeran’s career where he promised Guardian writer Alexis Petridis that he would “calm down a bit”.

Album opener “Tides” suggests that Sheeran is simultaneous open to embracing maturity and struggling to slow down. In a typically literal passage he states, “I have grown up, I am a father now. Everything has changed, but I am still the same somehow”. In painfully unpoetic terminology Sheeran explains the tension of being caught between the thrill of wild nights and the sensible level-headed responsibility that comes with having a family that truly depends on you. The tender chorus that unsubtly apes Bon Iver is beautiful as Sheeran finds a moment of serenity amid this manic subconscious tug of war; unfortunately, it’s sandwiched between turgid verses that hammer on insistently with the cadence of mid-2000s MOR indie rock (think Snow Patrol without the warm-hearted soul).

From there on in Sheeran is off to the races as he embraces a series of shrewdly composed genre pastiche designed to ensure his pop dominance and saccharine cuts that mine the rich vein of anxiety that lies between his everyman sweetness and rock & roll debauchery. “Shivers” proves that Sheeran can turn even the silliest of lines (“oooh I love it when you do it like that”) into wedding disco anthems, while “Bad Habits” affords Ed the opportunity for a little Weeknd cosplay. He can’t match the lurid, sordid, darkness of Abel’s best work, but this is the sexiest and smoothest Ed Sheeran has ever sounded. The intersection of sweetness and sensuality suites him and there may be a strong future for Sheeran as a confessional playboy who is better at coming clean than getting dirty. Unfortunately, Sheeran appears to have succumbed to the vague bigness of sound that strips so many stadium-sized artists of their originality. “Overpass Graffiti” drifts so tediously at mid-tempo that any tenderness it may have contained is washed away. “Stop The Rain” is far better as it pulsates and drives with 80s throwback urgency before building to a snappy, satisfying and sexy hook. “2step” tries to inject some energy into proceedings, but Sheeran still struggles to deliver original R&B hooks and is better served in the sweet-yet-sharp quasi-rapped verse.

The modern folk busker-turned-stadium-headliner shtick of his debut appears to have fallen by the wayside on = (pronounced equals), but when Sheeran does return to his acoustic bag of tricks it is instantly apparent exactly how he won the world’s heart. “First Times” is a sweet and sensitive reflection on how long-term relationships are filled with profound waypoints (or little first times) which come with both an onrush of joy and a seismic and irreversible shift – from a first kiss and saying “I do” to holding your first child. The wounded piano driven “The Joker And The Queen” is another refreshing change of pace; channelling Beatles balladry through his own folksy sentimentality, Sheeran praises his lover for seeing the best in him while eschewing the identikit pop gloss that blights much of =. Sure it’s saccharine, but “The Joker And The Queen” thrives precisely because Sheeran isn’t afraid of ridicule. Sadly, “Leave Your Life” struggles by way of comparison. Sheeran tries his hand at reconciling stuttering avant garde production with 90s boy band smultz and the result is a frustrating placeless promise of commitment that feels performative rather than heartfelt – and, for all his sins, that’s something that could never be said about Sheeran before this release. Unfortunately, specificity does nothing to aid the corny cod-calypso of “Sandman” as Sheeran follows in Liam Gallagher and a million others footsteps in struggling to write a compelling pop song for their young child.

Sheeran has always sounded safe and sugary, but even in his most trite moments, he’s never sounded truly generic, until now.= is worryingly gutless. Sheeran greatest triumphs stemmed from a bloody-minded determination to do things his way: to be sweet, saccharine and radically vulnerable. Sure, his choruses might be clumsy, a little on the nose or galling even, but he wasn’t pulling his punches. On = Ed recedes into the modern pop muddle. “Collide” exemplifies the album’s woes as Sheeran wastes some of his most beautifully distinct lyrics about valuing the lived reality of a relationship rather than the symbolic gestures of coupledom (“you lost your wedding ring, but I didn’t mind, because I gotta a feeling baby that we’ll be fine”) on a lifeless hook and meandering arrangement. Still, for all his struggles, Sheeran remains supreme when it comes to depicting a loving and lasting relationship without disguising the ambiguity, doubt and frustration that comes as a natural by-product of commitment. Sheeran is too damn talented to fail, but all his craft and guile can’t make = remotely interesting.

The final score: review Not So Good
The 411
Ed Sheeran remains a wonderfully vulnerable songsmith capable of beautifully detailing both the joy and frustration of long term loving relationships, but on he has succumbed to generic choruses and aimless stadium pleasing sonics. Ed is too talented to fail, but where his albums were once brazenly corny and imaginatively saccharine, is simply dull.

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Ed Sheeran, David Hayter