Having come a long way from the early days of rapping with a guitar and a loop pedal, Ed Sheeran has racked up some of history’s most impressive touring numbers over the past couple years and has seen his appeal get further and further watered down into industry trend-hopping. Originally a massive breath of fresh air into the world of mainstream pop, Sheeran’s heartwarming lyricism and tender vocal performances mixed with his sampling creativity and unexpected talents for stringing together syllables at dizzying rates made him an instantly recognizable force. Starting with 2019’s dismal No. 6 Collaborations Project, that’s not really the case anymore. While =, returning to the series of math symbols, is a step back up, it’s still far from his highest heights with a score of generic tracks that could have belonged to just about any big pop star. The talents we fell in love with aren’t completely gone, however – there are still a decent handful of tracks that are synonymous enough with his older style to break down even the most jaded listeners’ walls of cynicism and open themselves up to the cheesy, wedding-song bliss. He’s certainly very good at what he does.
Sheeran often opens his albums with a densely-packed track updating fans on the events of his life, this time the most important development being slowing down his party lifestyle, becoming a father and settling down with his wife. Instead of rapping his thoughts like last time, Sheeran pivots to overblown dad-rock to emphasize the chaos of his life as he jets across the world. He has aptly described the sound in interviews as “just noise,” as the incessant pounding of the drumbeats and guitar chords are mixed in a truly obnoxious way while Sheeran offers some of his most on-the-nose lyrics of all time. The respite of the a cappella chorus, symbolising his newfound peace, certainly sounds nice, but it’s such a whiplash effect going back and forth that it’s rather unlistenable. Unlike his recent work, however, is the fact that Sheeran picked some of his best tracks as singles this time. “Shivers” is the best of the bunch, a track that essentially follows the vaguely tropical “Shape of You” formula but adds in some more rhythmic aspects with quicker lyrics and syncopated guitar parts, building up to an absolutely undeniable chorus and a fantastic harmonized bridge. Sheeran is widely regarded as a master songwriter for a reason. Even if it’s far from profound, his grasp of melody is second to none. “Bad Habits” was a respectable pivot into house-inspired dance-pop with another of those inescapable melodies, but it feels rather faceless coming from a man that used to have one of the most distinctive sets of talents in the game. In between these two singles is “First Times,” one of his classic acoustic wedding anthems apparently recorded in one take while Sheeran was exhausted and crossfaded. Sometimes these derivative Sheeran tracks can still hit – it’s his wheelhouse – but this one feels far too half-hearted both lyrically and vocally.
“Bad Habits” leads to the album’s best run of three tracks as it reaches its midpoint. “Overpass Graffiti” feels like it’s poised to become the album’s next smash hit with its double-time 80s dance pop “Blinding Lights” sound that just propelled another track like The Kid LAROI’s “Stay” to the top spot – but this time we get another dose of Sheeran’s adorably earnest songwriting style adding to the proceedings. A track that sees him reminiscing on the lasting impact a perfect relationship that just didn’t work out will have on him, he compares the lingering feelings to the mark of graffiti doodled in an precarious and unreachable spot. Sheeran’s performance is believable as his voice wavers ever so slightly, and he and his production team craft a sentimental banger to combine his two strengths. “The Joker and the Queen,” however, is the track that proves Sheeran still has what it takes to bring a tear to my eye. Although it’s a little too full of shoehorned card-game metaphors, the tender piano ballad underscores Sheeran’s enamoured vocals with triplet melodies that make it feel like a track from a classic Disney romance tale. As the strings begin swelling later on, Sheeran thanking his “queen” for dedicating herself to a “joker” rather than a “king,” it’s impossible not to feel something. Pencil it in for a future slow dance. “Leave Your Life” is equally sentimental, if not quite so musically compelling, as Sheeran dedicates the track to his daughter as a memory of their everlasting bond if tragedy were to strike – with another ridiculously catchy chorus.
The album’s back half is filled with largely unmemorable tracks, Sheeran sinking into various pop formulae with some bland and repetitive material. The track “Collide” is curiously set to a drum n’ bass style instrumental that clashes with Sheeran’s singing style, the entire track essentially a list of various things that he and his wife have done together anchored by the album’s most underwritten chorus. “Stop The Rain” sees Sheeran get a little angry with another upbeat pop track, but there are some glaring mixing issues here when instrumental aspects come back with varying volume levels. While musical lawsuits are getting a little dangerously out of hand recently, it still feels a little strange as well for a multimillionaire like Sheeran with tracks as obviously derivative as his are to sound so genuinely furious about the one that inspired the track. “Love In Slow Motion” feels like another shallow attempt to capture the “Thinking Out Loud” lightning in a bottle, but “2Step” is one of the only real standouts on the back end. Sheeran brings back his penchant for blazing through syllables, and while the trap beat sounds nearly as strange as some of the other instrumental choices here, when Sheeran starts flowing and then hits the confident and carefree chorus, it feels like the Ed of + and x is back.
While many fans have touted “Visiting Hours” as being able to reduce them to a blubbering mess, the sudden gospel choir that storms in without warning in the second verse makes the track feel a little like one of those overly sentimental films that are so obviously trying to break you that they don’t end up doing it. The subject matter here is genuinely touching, however, as Sheeran longs for just a little more time with his recently departed mentor to update him on the goings-on with the kind of vocal performance that tugs at the heartstrings. It’s the last moment of any strength here, as the project winds down with “Sandman,” a track set to cloying marimbas and ukulele that might be the track most obviously directed at literal infants since Chance the Rapper rapped the ABCs on a DJ Khaled album, and “Be Right Now,” a track completely devoid of personality that runs through some faux-inspirational buzzwords and will surely underscore a reality TV show montage in the future.
Ed Sheeran has essentially gone down the Maroon 5 path – although thankfully, with results that aren’t quite so completely awful – in being an act that stormed onto the scene with talents for pop songwriting and a unique energy that ultimately got subsumed in simply following the quickest ways to draw attention and ensure you’re playing in the background of every supermarket. The talents are still there, you just have to do a bit of digging to find them now.
Favourite Tracks: The Joker and the Queen, Shivers, Overpass Graffiti, 2Step
Least Favourite Track: Sandman