Review Summary: Stuck in his daydream, been this way since eighteen.
There isn’t much that can be said about Ed Sheeran’s music anymore that feels novel. He’s a ginger singer-songwriter with an affinity for mixing gorgeous but basic acoustic balladry with awkward, fumbling hip-hop verses. He has a great voice, but it is often squandered on middling, vanilla songwriting that emphasizes billboard success over craft. Sheeran broke out in a big way with 2011’s +
, namely because of the single ‘The A Team’, and he has been a pop staple ever since. That’s about as much backstory as is needed before approaching ÷
, his third consecutive record to prove his mastery of elementary mathematics. It’s expectedly more of the same; indulging in a handful of heartthrob slow-dance titles while continuing the elusive search for Sheeran’s rhythm as a white rapper. It’s neither the worst thing he’s done nor does it provide any optimism that he’ll eventually ascend to a greater purpose.
‘Castle on the Hill’ was the song that initially offered hope towards some sort of Elton John like coming-of-age (he even name checks ‘Tiny Dancer’), but any hopes of him fulfilling his enormous potential were dashed with the simultaneous release of ‘Shape of You.’ You see, ‘Castle on the Hill’ was a massive step forward for Sheeran, because it proved that he has more than two modes. Ramping up the tempo with a true classic rock aesthetic without losing a trace of romantic imagery (“we watched the sunset over the castle on the hill”) proved to be an excellent happy medium for him, and it offered an out for those who despise both his schmaltzy ballads and his faux hip-hop. An entire album written in a similar mindset might have continued to propel him forward, but ‘Shape of You’ proved that for every step forward, Sheeran will always be ready with another song to anchor us right here in the present – within this empire
he’s now built on the foundation of three consecutive records that all mirror each other.
None of this is to say that ÷
has nothing to offer, there’s just very little here that qualifies as new. ‘Dive’ is a slightly watered down version of ‘Thinking Out Loud’, but it’s still quite beautiful, especially when Sheeran gets soulful on the “so don't call me baby” verse. We even get a double dip of starry-eyed passion with ‘Perfect’, another ballad which proves that no matter how many times Sheeran reworks the same general song premise, we’ll keep swooning over his vocals and exquisite delivery of lines like “now I know I have met an angel in person…no, I don’t deserve this.” It’s his bread and butter, and he delivers here in every way we’d expect him to. Opinions may be somewhat divided (pun intended) on his hip-hop/loosely reggae-inspired tracks, but both ‘Eraser’ and ‘Shape of You’ present that side of his music in a tolerable, and at times even surface-level enjoyable, light. The main flaw with ÷
is the same one that has plagued all of his LP's to date: the abundance of cookie-cutter, throwaway tracks that seem to pad every decent song at a 2:1 ratio. For example, nobody who listens to this album will declare ‘Galway Girl’ to be their favorite, and the existence of songs like ‘Happier’ (“but if he breaks your heart like lovers do / just know that I'll be waiting here for you”) only lends credence to the criticism that his music abides to all known clichés in the book.
In every way imaginable, ÷
is just your typical Ed Sheeran record. It would have been nice if he’d given us a reason to ditch the notion of a “typical” Sheeran album by advancing his sound in another direction, but his lack of mobility does not indicate a decline. If +
got your juices flowing in any way, shape, or form, then ÷
will satisfy whatever it is you got out of those albums. He’s found his niche, and it appears as though he plans to remain settled within it for quite some time. By pop standards you could do a lot worse, but ÷
is not an album that will test the ceiling of Sheeran’s tantalizing potential.