By Carson King | Contributing Writer
After more than a year out of the public eye, Ed Sheeran has returned with a new album titled “÷” (pronounced “Divide”). Released March 1, the record shows a sampling of great variety, encompassing global influences from Ireland, Africa, and the Caribbean, in addition to showcasing styles ranging from his signature acoustic-guitar-backed rap to orchestral ballads.
Upon first listen, it is a moving and entertaining record, but before long this album feels more like a collection of songs that we have all heard already. Many Sheerios are glad to finally have new music to add to their library. However, I, a long-time fan, agree with most critics — the album is a disappointing reemergence following 2014’s standout X (“Multiply”) and an entire year of silence.
Many of the tracks are no more than masterful facsimiles of songs and styles made famous by other artists. In fact, I would go as far as to hold that the cold calculation required for the execution of such precise mimicry undermines the genuine voice that greatly attributed to the appeal of Sheeran’s past work.
The album’s ballads particularly, and there are more than a handful of them, are sweet but unoriginal. “Perfect” sounds like a Michael Buble knock-off of Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight,” and “Happier” would have been just as soon sung by Sam Smith or Adele. A clear follow-up to 2014’s “Thinking Out Loud,” “How Would You Feel” is sappy wedding DJ fodder.
Even the record’s best track is decidedly not ground breaking. “Shape of You,” which you have no doubt heard a thousand times on the radio since its release as a single in January, follows a trend of pop songs borrowing rhythms from Jamaican Dancehall as heard in many songs by Major Lazer and in Sia and Sean Paul’s 2016 hit “Cheap Thrills.”
The album also presents messages that are weak or questionable. This can particularly be heard in “New Man,” in which Sheeran characterizes an ex’s new boyfriend as an absolute snob, and then goes on to critique how the ex has changed since their parting. This tune carries a scornful sentiment of victim hood reminiscent to that of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” or one of many breakup songs by Taylor Swift. Another track, “What Do I Know,” is also unsatisfactory. The song starts out as a tune about the power of music to make a change in such terrifying times, but lacks any real political commentary or a call to action with its noncommittal refrain, “Love can change the world in a moment, but what do I know?”
Ultimately, this album is enjoyable at surface level—but strips Sheeran of the persona of a genuine “nobody” that he has cultivated for years, exposing Sheeran as a song machine with an ear for what sells. Hopefully Ed will put his talent to use for innovation rather than imitation in the future.