Ed Sheeran – –

Having finally exhausted all of the basic mathematical symbols, it makes sense for Ed Sheeran to have saved to the end – mostly since it’s the most tonally similar to his 2011 debut, +. A stripped-back acoustic project that finds Sheeran diving into some of the most serious topics of his career and opening up about some personal tragedies, despite its brotherhood with the project that fired up the pop world 12 years ago, it’s still evident on this one that somewhere along the line Sheeran lost his touch alongside all of the spellbinding success. Six albums in, and his songwriting penchant for presenting big emotions in the most surface-level, universally relatable way has become more evident – something that doesn’t quite land when he’s talking about things as intense as cancer diagnoses. You won’t find the lyrical specificity or quirkiness that endeared us all to him in the beginning. We’ve heard his voice on so many painfully bland tunes that have been overplayed to death that his nasal, boyish tone feels grating on any backdrop. And those backdrops – despite the presence of The National’s Aaron Dessner – are as inoffensive and barely-there as ever. While there are a couple moments where the rawness does break through in an affecting way – not to mention that the project is home some of his more impressive vocal performances in years – at its core, it’s still an Ed Sheeran album.

The album opens with some of its stronger moments. Single “Boat” kicks things off with raw acoustics and a string-backed chorus that’s genuinely one of the more soaring and effective hooks for getting the emotions flowing. Talking about being strong despite all of the awful things life keeps throwing at him, a theme that persists throughout the album, he adorns the chorus with some nice harmonies and a central big note in an unexpected place – although it doesn’t end as strongly as it could have, petering out quietly. Sheeran also tacks on some great vocal moments in the bridge. “Salt Water” is one where the tune isn’t as strong, but it’s easily the best song on the project from a lyrical standpoint. Seemingly tackling his struggles with suicidal thoughts, Sheeran lends more of a poetic touch to the proceedings. Despite the awkward and unearned big drum hits in the background and a chorus melody that kind of goes nowhere, the verses are pretty bleak and powerful – featuring images of Sheeran standing at a precipice, the natural elements all but daring him to take the leap. His wavering vocal performance definitely drives it home as well, as the strings swell once more in the final moments. The lead single “Eyes Closed,” on the other hand, falls completely flat. It seems that even on an album like this, the label demanded a boring, radio-ready Ed Sheeran single – and this one feels like watered-down “Shape of You.” With a music-box plunked out guitar riff serving as the backbone, they couldn’t get too loud on the acoustic album so when Sheeran belts out the chorus it feels like he’s coming on far too strong – especially when he runs through the “ayayaya”s reminiscent of a toddler making the most annoying sounds they can muster.

The track “Life Goes On,” as you might guess from the title, finds Sheeran outdoing himself when it comes to running through every platitude and overdone image you know. Despite touching on things hitting “like a train,” “waves tumbling down,” “the storms will roll” and sinking “like a stone,” the one that he made up lands the most awkwardly – “easy come hard go.” All of this is set to a backdrop that shows Sheeran still trying to remake “Thinking Out Loud.” A track about a friend passing away, it really seems like Sheeran would want to spend a little more time seeming like he cares. Another important moment to him that doesn’t feel like it appears on the next track “Dusty,” about sharing records with his young daughter. Other than the appropriately dusty crackling percussion beat in the back, the track has almost nothing in the way of dynamics, movement or emotion. People call songs one-note, but this is almost the definition as Sheeran drops down to a whispery lower register. The worst part about it doesn’t appear until a baffling transition into the bridge with a weird flourish of noises and awful key change. “End of Youth” fares better with some more believable and specific lyrics about all of the pain making Sheeran grow up and start facing things like an adult. With some of his traditionally wordy and speedy passages, they feel appropriate here to represent the bad news that keeps coming and coming.

The derivative nature of these songs continues later into the tracklisting, but no more so than on “Colourblind,” which is a lot more of a dead ringer for “Perfect” than “Life Goes On” is for “Thinking Out Loud.” Despite a decent lyrical theme of colours running throughout, the overly digitized plodding synths in the background make it sound like it’s from a machine designed to lull a baby to sleep. You can say that Sheeran sounds pretty good here, but it’s just because he’s copying what worked before to a T. The tracks “Curtains” and “Spark” are both certainly technically competent pop tunes that have enough of a fleshed-out instrumental and catchy melody that you can nod your head to – it shows that Sheeran is here for a reason, he knows how to write a hook, but there’s not much special about them. “Curtains” succeeds a little more due to having a bit of a rock edge that breaks things up. The track “Borderline” has one of those good hooks as well – in fact, it might be the best one here – but it’s delivered by such a screeching, grating falsetto performance from Sheeran that it becomes entirely unlistenable.

It’s not quite so bad, but the questionable falsetto continues onto the track “Vega” as Sheeran compares his many responsibilities to the burning pain of being the brightest star in the sky. The chorus feels highly abrupt and unfinished, as it leads into “Sycamore,” essentially the most plain explanation of the story of his wife’s diagnosis. We see Sheeran nervous in the hospital waiting room, and despite one of the more repetitive and bland choruses here, it’s still interesting to hear. “No Strings” is a sleepy song reaffirming his dedication to his wife, before “The Hills of Aberfeldy” closes things out. Apparently written 10 years ago, it would be great to hear Sheeran pull from this folk-song energy more often – it allows him to show off his runs, and the baritone range he approaches this one from might actually be his greatest strength.

It’s always been clear that Ed Sheeran is a wildly talented guy – just take a look at his loop-pedal antics – but it would seem that making multi-millions has eroded the hungrier version of last decade and replaced it with someone who’s satisfied to merely coast along, even when he’s talking about something so near and dear to his heart. It just means that you should be satisfied to get a couple moments per album where that talent still shines through, and not expect much else.

Favourite Tracks: Salt Water, The Hills of Aberfeldy, Curtains

Least Favourite Track: Dusty

Score: 4/10


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