I needed a little time to review this album, and I’ve listened through it quite a few times, purely for the reason that the first time I listened to it, I really didn’t like it, and thought I should give it a bit more of a chance.
Sometimes, as artists progress and become more successful, it can be hard to draw a line between what is genuine musical progression and change, and what is down to a record label’s formulated attempt to drive sales and recognition.
I think the music industry is a tricky one because there’s a constant play-off between hard work and success, and within that there is always a push for songs to be more ‘radio-friendly’ and appeal to a wider market, and this doesn’t just happen in music, but across every other creative industry too. I’ve seen so many clickbait stories about Sheeran appearing in the few months, such as this one, but the image his record label and PR team have crafted for him and how he chooses to be involved with the media shouldn’t be correlated to the quality of his music.
I don’t like the phrase ‘sell-out’, and I hate the concept of people who only like bands until everyone else likes them, but it’s hard to match up the Ed from 2011 who refused to dye his hair at the request of his record company, with the Ed who you can’t see live for less than £50 now, financially cutting out a lot of people who would have loved to go. I appreciate that there has to be supply and demand, but there are plenty of musicians out there who push to keep gig prices at an accessible rate for their fans.
Sheeran’s stance on the divide between making good music and getting famous has never been explicit, but with the emphasis on authenticity which he has always stated, it’s a bit disappointing to see this album as his weakest by a significant margin. There are at best four (five at a push) good songs on it, and the rest is lyrically tenuous, boring, bland and overproduced. Unfortunately, Sheeran fails to master the complicated trick of creating a really good album whilst living up to the expectations of a prominent musician in the spotlight.
Rant over and getting into the album, the start is positive. ‘Eraser’ is a good opener, an honest and explorative insight into the highs and lows of fame. Perhaps this is ‘You Need Me, I Don’t Need You’ part two? The powerful sections of this song are a little damaged by a heavy-handed use of fade-out and synths, and I strongly object to the painful abbreviation of thousand to ‘thou’ (I feel about 60 saying that!). Other than that, it’s easily one of the strongest tracks on the record.
‘Castle on the Hill’ is sonically unexciting and lyrically clichéd and gets old within about three listens. ‘Dive’, ‘Perfect’, ‘Hearts Don’t Break Around Here’ and ‘How Would You Feel’ all fall into the same bracket, offering up little variety from previous Sheeran fare, and ‘Happier’ is pure schmaltz, and could easily have been written as a Backstreet Boys b-side in the late 90s.
‘New Man’ is a lot better, with lyrics returning to the intelligent insight that makes up some of the best Ed Sheeran songs. Equally, ‘Galway Girl’ is a real grower, very memorable and will definitely be a big hit (I’m sure this is going to be the next single from the album).
It’s also easy to see why ‘Shape of You’ has more than doubled the number of Spotify streams of ‘Castle on the Hill’ from their joint release in January, as it’s markedly different and much more interesting to listen to. It’s a relief to see a divergence from the slightly overbearing ballad influence on the album.
The best song on the album is ‘What Do I Know?’, it’s very pared back, simple and profound, and I feel Sheeran’s authenticity rings true here more strongly than in the rest of the album.
Overall, ÷ is a mixed bag. I can’t shake the feeling that fame and record label pressures have infiltrated and changed the shape of Sheeran’s organic musical style, but then again it’s hard to distinguish between musical evolution and moving forward in sound and the drive to sell albums to a big number of people.