Artist: Ed Sheeran
Release Date: March 3rd, 2017
Runtime: 46 min.
Label: Asylum, Atlantic
You probably won’t see many pop albums in the music reviews here on ED, mostly due to the fact that David and I don’t much care for pop. Yet every once in a while, something comes out of that realm that I really enjoy. Ed Sheeran’s new Divide – keeping in step with Sheeran’s usual math naming convention – is one of those.
Bob Dylan once said that he never wished to be made an icon, that he only wanted to be a troubadour, a storyteller. There was a time that many of our great singers might have said the same. It seems that time is no more. Europe and America’s celebrated musicians always feel the need to spend their time in the limelight and cultivate a specific image, but I tend to agree with Dylan’s philosophy. I prefer our singers to be storytellers, wandering minstrels, tapping into the spirit of their audiences and reflecting that back to them, along with the spin of personal experience and pondering. Sheeran’s new album does this very well.
On Divide, Sheeran gives us an eclectic variety of personal songs influenced by every day people and small towns, songs that transcend Sheeran’s personal experience and become almost universal in nature without losing the personality that Sheeran so often injects into his songwriting, that likability and weirdness we all experience to some degree. Perhaps Sheeran’s self-imposed hiatus from social media and the like helped him make an album that sounds both of our times and timeless.
Ed’s aspirations alone on this record are admirable. Though he leans heavily into his own talent, he ties together a wide array of influences more evenly and across the board than he did on his first two albums, and he does so with ease. This is a guy who once said that two of his biggest influences are Bob Dylan and Eminem, and we see that here, as well as touches of Elton John, Billy Joel, Celtic music, and other folk music, including English, American, and African. We see smooth implementations of both hip-hop and soft rock, influences from Pink Floyd songs like “Wish You Were Here,” and musical references to Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, and Damien Rice. Oh, and of course, American and English pop, from all eras. Sheeran deftly melds these influences together, and yet he remains unique, maintaining his own folksy, singer-songwriter brand. We hear that one-man band excitement, too, that bar singer energy that he always brings to his live shows.
Some of the stuff is cliche, corny, and trite. If you have heard Sheeran before, you know how it goes, and he doesn’t disown it. However, take for instance this album’s popular single, “Shape of You,” at its basis an infectious pop tune but not much more. Upon further examination, you hear that it is really a folksy hip-hop kind of number performed singer-songwriter style. It is also a bit too lustful but at the same time comes across as sweet and, at least somewhat, genuine. And that’s another thing. Even when the song is about something serious or does get mired down, there are other qualities that bring the mood back in line with this sort of optimistic outlook that Sheeran has on just about everything. He is equally emphatic in the peppy and in the slow moments, and, in fact, some of the more energetic songs are the truer sounding.
The most present theme in Divide is personal experience. There isn’t much of a continuity beyond this, which some people may dislike, thinking the diversity of songs on the work tends to make it feel more like a collection than an album as a whole. But that wasn’t an issue for me. Sheeran crafts each song almost perfectly for the desired effect. Though there are some inconsistencies, I found a lot that is personal and applicable, relatable. The first two songs show a young man trying to maintain a strong connection to his roots, and by the end of Divide, it’s plain that he’s found them again, if he ever did lose them in the first place.
Other than the aforementioned triteness and the inconsistency of sound, where the wide array of tones and influences may cause a bit of confusion for someone looking for a consistent continuity throughout their albums, there are a few musical missteps. Sometimes Sheeran’s rapping – or near-rapping – grates against the rest of his style. There are, as well, a couple of songs that sound like filler and could have been cut. Also, quite appropriately, Eric Clapton – under the pseudonym Angelo Mysterioso – and John Mayer pop up on the tracks “Dive” and “How Would You Feel” respectively to add some fitting guitar work, and it is beautiful, but not as prominent as I would have liked. There is a nice variety of centered guitar on this album, though.
The four standout songs for me are the fast-fire reflection on fame, “Eraser,” the U2 style track about remembering your youth, “Castle on the Hill,” “Dive,” if for the Eric Clapton guitar work alone, the already discussed “Shape of You,” the Irish-influenced “Galway Girl,” the hilarious and scathing “New Man,” the contemplative “What Do I Know?,” and the beautiful song about loss, “Supermarket Flowers.”
Does Divide break any new musical ground? No, but it does provide us with some great, honest, and bare songs, much of them with a sort of stripped down sound. That alone is a breath of fresh air amidst the overly bloated pop efforts of today. Overall, I enjoyed this collection of top-of-the-line pop music from a singer-songwriter standpoint infused with rock and hip-hop rhythms. Divide is so joyously fun and heartfelt that it is sure to strike a chord with listeners from may walks of life. Though I have never been a huge Ed Sheeran fan myself, the album struck a chord with me too.
I’m going to give Ed Sheeran’s Divide an 83%.
P.S.: The deluxe edition is worth it, especially for “Nancy Mulligan,” a song Ed wrote about his grandparents, and “Bibia Be Ye Ye,” a Twi song he wrote while visiting Ghana.