Album Review: Ed Sheeran ‘÷’ (‘Divide’)
Hey up. Feature length, objective dissection of the third album from the wide-eyed Wunderkind of Hebden Bridge.
This is the third album from British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, named by just the mathematical ‘÷’ sign; the others having been ‘x’ and ‘+’. One challenge to review writers is that the ‘divide’ symbol is not represented on the standard UK computer keyboard. Good start…
Notoriously, ‘Divide’ has established a new normal, by having nine of its tracks occupy those of the UK’s top ten chart positions simultaneously – despite only two of them having been released as singles (‘Shape of You’ and ‘How Would You Feel’). This prompted the widely-discussed question of whether the present method of calculating the UK charts warrants a redesign. This would be to avoid the chart being hijacked by important releases, to the extent of it becoming unrepresentative of the industry. Perhaps, however, the chart takeover was indeed representative – for such is the state of music at present, where album popularity seems as much a result of nostalgia as musicality, that one album can dominate to the exclusion of all else.
There is no question that Sheeran is currently as ubiquitous as the sky, and while some of that must be down to word of mouth, a lot of it is marketing. Hype can always be relied upon to divide; one side may accept brash fame as evidence of value, while the other wonders why they need to shove it into our faces this much if the product were actually any good. This writer is definitely of the latter school by instinct – but for this review, I must put that aside and consider the album objectively. However, all consideration will be in the terms of the ‘Can You Whistle It’ philosophy; are these well structured, compelling songs, or are they just a collection of artfully-produced riffs and loops masquerading as invention? ‘Divide’ is one of the biggest albums of the year so far, and almost all its tracks got into the top 20, so it merits an extensive, track-by-track review. So then, Ed Sheeran’s ‘÷’ – is it any good?
The album opens with an autobiographical spoken rap over a three-chord loop played on acoustic guitar. The hook is provided by a flamenco-esque hammer on-off sequence. This loop dominates, save for a twice-visited, musically engaging chorus. Occasionally the rap gives way to tune, but here the scale dynamic is confined by the very limited underlying chord structure. The lyrics seem sincere, telling of career origins and a personal promise to a father, while expressing some ambivalence to the ambition and success stemming from that relationship.
With a choppy guitar as its base, a bluesy tune takes us though a number of variants, none of them predictable. Clever use of backing singers. Sweet, yet conversely euphemistic lyrics. Numerous hooks. I found myself humming it after it had finished, thus passing the whistle test. Commendable.
‘Shape of You’
Lyrically, it’s apparently not the girl’s personality or character that fascinates young Ed here, it’s the curves of her waist and her musk on his bedsheets. Avoid pasta and childbirth pet, seems you’re looking at Mr Temporary-Self-Gratification. The song itself relies on that clandestine creation-killer, the Riff. A currently fashionable technique, riffs have their place as an adornment, but not as the basis of a full song. It’s not even a good riff; just two notes, off the beat, repeated and then partially resolving, thereafter to recur endlessly in a loop of minor-7th chords. Ultimately, it’s annoying, starting nowhere and finishing nowhere else. Meanwhile, plenty of crowd-pleasing you-can-all-join-in hooks. It’ll no doubt wow them from the Pyramid stage , and that’s where droning chants like this belong.
The classic I-V-vi-IV progression, otherwise known as the much-ridiculed ‘four-chord’ song, beloved by so many X-Factor acts and frequently resulting in the sort of cliché composition that will cause your drummer to roll his eyes when you’re not looking. A drippingly sweet sort of middle-16 (could be wrong, but I’m not going to play it again to count them) tries to rescue it, as do the omigod-not-strings-as-well. Some of the lyrics seem to have been inserted by the insistent application of a lump hammer rather than lucid poetry. Derivative.
This is a skilfully related story of meeting a girl in a pub in Ireland. There is a certain authenticity to the feel and atmosphere here – but then Wikipedia reports that Sheeran had Irish grandparents and your man Van was an early influence. The song structure, although uninspiring in itself, reflects the Irish musical tradition, so I cannot legitimately criticise it, because it is what it is. OK, I admit it – I’ve known craic like that in Naas and Mullingar and Sheeran nails it here.
A simple three-chord sequence carries the first verse of a restricted, but not unpleasant melody. OK, can live with that. Second verse, same as the first. That’s OK too, many classics have been built thus. But then comes the bridge – and it’s the same sequence, when it could so easily have shifted to an alternative key or progression. And just when we’re getting over that disappointment, along comes the chorus – with the perfunctory vocal lift, but exasperatingly, lashed into the same three-chord straitjacket. Any variety comes from the production alone, including a predictable aah-aah bit during which you can wave your phone torch or your can of Red Bull. As with so much recent songwriting, this reeks of limited imagination and frustratingly missed compositional opportunities. History is full of great three-chord songs. This is not one of them.
This track is probably the clearest exponent of Ed Sheeran’s style. He is, in effect a Rap-Folk crossover, and while that comes across in other pieces on ‘Divide’, it is with ‘New Man’ where its essence is expressed. A chord sequence on the guitar with a layer of Rhythm-and-Poetry on top. The lyrics are acute, succinct, and expressive.
It’s not really a tune, just a chant. As such, it is much in the vein of, and perhaps musically interchangeable with TLC’s somewhat superior 1999 hit ‘No Scrubs’
That said, I can’t imagine TLC ever including the magnificently British line of “He’s got his eyebrows plucked / And his arsehole bleached“. Unquestionably excellent lyrics but musically dull, and unfortunately It’s Been Done, better, at least once.
‘Hearts Don’t Break Around Here’
This is the closest to a composed song thus far on ‘Divide’. Different chord sequences between verse and chorus, a discernible and catchy if slightly boy-band style of melody, high standard of lyrics and the almost invariably enchanting time signature of 6/8. Add in the production and musically speaking, this is one of the best tracks on the album.
‘What Do I Know’
For this track, Sheeran revisits his origins and the sentiments of ‘Eraser’. It’s a pleasant enough little ditty, happily marching alongside a minimalist progression on the guitar, the instrument he apparently can always fall back on if the stock market crashes. It’s OK I suppose. I doubt I’d miss never hearing it again.
‘How Would You Feel (Paean)’
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a paean as ‘a song of praise or triumph’, or ‘a creative work expressing enthusiastic praise’. ‘How Would You Feel’ is a lilting and tender love song, as sentimental and vulnerable as they come. As is Sheeran’s way on this album, it’s an awful lot of lyrics tightly shoehorned into a tune that is pretty much dictated by the chord sequence. Sometimes it works, sometimes not, but here it does. It’s a tad saccharine for my tastes, and again, it has that slightly irritating ‘Boyzony’ flavour – it would not surprise me to hear it featured on the soundtrack of a Richard Curtis movie.
Sheeran closes an album in which he has twice referred to a father, presumably his, with a compelling eulogy to another family member, in this case his grandmother. This song is a genuine tearjerker, one that no doubt will strike a chord in many families faced with such a challenge. It is musically competent at best – but the sentiments it expresses will probably instigate its widespread adoption and raise it to a level beyond its purely compositional value. This has got ‘classic’ written all over it.
Bless him, Ed’s no great songwriter. He has a limited style, but he delivers it well. This is an album of variable musical quality. There is no real innovation, and the only genuine classic in this collection achieves that not by the prowess of its songcraft, but by its universal sentiments.
It is perhaps a sign of the state of our industry that you can see artists as creatively accomplished as Ed Sheeran in any of the UK’s hundreds of acoustic music venues. Neither his talent, nor his songwriting is special. What we have here is an album that a few decades ago would have been a minor hit at best, against stiff and far superior competition. The success of ‘Divide’ is more of a tribute to A&R and marketing in a struggling industry from which the big money has long departed. Put simply – we stopped paying for music – and what we got was Ed Sheeran. It’s not his fault. Its ours.