Ed Sheeran = review: If you loved what came before, you will love this

Whatever you already think about the pop star, this album isn’t going to alter it

    
Artist: Ed Sheeran
Genre: Pop
Label: Asylum

Ed Sheeran’s new album contains a song called 2step. It features a pummelling sub-bass and the sound of the singer-songwriter rapping, this time at warp-speed. Amid the lyrical declarations of love for his wife, there’s a line that seems to address his plethora of critics: “Sometimes,” he says, “the words cut deep.”

Even if you’re inclined to the belief that pop stars – particularly those who have shifted 150 million records in the space of 10 years or whose last tour was the highest-grossing in history – should take their lumps when it comes to criticism, you can see why it might rankle him. As soon as Sheeran arrived in the mainstream consciousness he became subject to a particular kind of opprobrium that goes beyond bad reviews, to a disproportionate point where dislike becomes performative and the artist in question a kind of living shorthand for all that’s wrong with popular music. A decade, four multi-platinum albums and umpteen hit singles later, he still is: no one seems to have come along to seize that particular position from him.

Ed Sheeran can also console himself with the fact that, with =, he seems to have made an album that is critic-proof

He can console himself that this places him in an august lineage – previous incumbents have included Coldplay, Phil Collins, the Bee Gees, Paul McCartney in the wake of the Beatles' split, and Simon and Garfunkel – the last so reviled that Paul Simon was booed off stage by the hippy crowd at a New York festival just as Bridge Over Troubled Water became the biggest-selling album of the year. Sheeran can also console himself with the fact that, with =, he seems to have made an album that is critic-proof. And not just in the sense that its huge success seems a matter of course, though the two singles that proceeded it, Bad Habits and Shivers, collectively spent 15 weeks at the top of the UK charts, the latter knocking the former off the number one spot.

It doesn’t feature anything as authentically head-turning as Sing, the brilliant Pharrell Williams-assisted single from 2014’s x that repositioned Sheeran as a pop artist rather than an acoustic troubadour. Its excursion into R&B territory, with Stop the Rain, is well turned rather than startling. Instead, = settles for gently nudging at the boundaries of what he’s known for, most notably on the opening Tides, which thunders along, driven by distorted guitars and double-time drums, and closer Be Right Now, which arrives unexpectedly welded to a Giorgio Moroder-ish synth line. As a result, whatever you already think about Sheeran, = isn’t going to alter it, and neither will a critic’s review.


If you lean towards the view that his success is down to commercial songwriting skill, an ability to write lyrics that connect directly with a vast audience and an innate understanding of what people want, then there's ample evidence for that. The chorus of single Overpass Graffiti is so finely composed and nailed-on that the question doesn't seem so much if it'll get to number one as whether it'll still be there at Christmas, rivalling his forthcoming festive collaboration with Elton John. And the only thing potentially stopping First Times from usurping his 2014 single Thinking Out Loud as the song most likely to be chosen for the first dance at innumerable weddings is the specifiable opening line – "I thought it'd feel different playing Wembley" – although there are no such issues with the similarly themed The Joker and the Queen, an intimate piano ballad with a genuinely lovely melody.

These songs are the musical equivalent of a heat-of-the-moment social media post from an artist who launched the pervasive latter-day idea that pop stars should be relatable, everyday figures

On the other hand, if you believe that Sheeran is a craven pop Machiavelli driven entirely by commercial concerns, you could alight on the audible influence of the Weeknd’s 2020 album After Hours, most specifically Blinding Lights, the biggest-selling single of last year. Something akin to that album’s take on synthy 80s pop runs through Bad Habits (which also gives a melancholy little nod towards Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy, and successfully conjures up an anticipatory night-falling-on-a-city atmosphere), Shivers and Overpass Graffiti.

If your take is that Sheeran is a writer unable to curb a tendency to schmaltz, there’s Sandman, a song about his baby daughter replete with music box chimes and lyrics about rainbows and shakes of a lamb’s tail that any diabetic should consider avoiding lest they end up in a coma. And Love in Slow Motion, a song about finding time to have it off within a busy marriage. But if you think part of his charm lies in an unvarnished, no-filter approach to songwriting, which leads him to release things that more cool and calculating heads might consider beyond the pale, well: same answer. These songs are the musical equivalent of a heat-of-the-moment social media post from an artist who, alongside Adele, launched the pervasive latter-day idea that pop stars should be relatable, everyday figures.

And rather like Adele’s new single Easy on Me, if you loved what came before, you will love this – each artist has ascended to a plane of success where it doesn’t matter if you make more of the same, and actually, it could be disastrous if you didn’t. = is an album of foregone conclusions: everything from multi-platinum success to the accompanying backlash feels preordained. For all the negative words that might sometimes cut deep, you get the feeling Sheeran might have quietly come to an accommodation with things as they are. Understandably, given his sales figures, he doesn’t sound like an artist in the business of changing people’s minds. – Guardian