Ed Sheeran: = review – calculated, craven, corny … or brilliantly crafted?

One of the world’s biggest pop stars only slightly tweaks the formula for an album that many will already have decided they either love or hate

Ed Sheeran’s new album contains a song called 2step. It features a pummelling sub-bass and the sound of the singer-songwriter rapping, this time at warp-speed. Amid the lyrical declarations of love for his wife, there’s a line that seems to address his plethora of critics: “Sometimes,” he says, “the words cut deep.”

Even if you’re inclined to the belief that pop stars – particularly those who have shifted 150m records in the space of 10 years or whose last tour was the highest-grossing in history – should take their lumps when it comes to criticism, you can see why it might rankle him. As soon as Sheeran arrived in the mainstream consciousness he became subject to a particular kind of opprobrium that goes beyond bad reviews, to a point where dislike becomes performative and the artist in question a kind of living shorthand for all that’s wrong with popular music. A decade, four multi-platinum albums and umpteen hit singles later, he still is: no one seems to have come along to seize that particular position from him.

He can console himself with the fact that this places him in an august lineage – previous incumbents have included Coldplay, Phil Collins, the Bee Gees, Paul McCartney in the wake of the Beatles’ split, and Simon and Garfunkel – the last so reviled that Paul Simon was booed off stage by the hippy crowd at a New York festival just as Bridge Over Troubled Water became the biggest-selling album of the year. Sheeran can also console himself with the fact that, with =, he seems to have made an album that is critic-proof. And not just in the sense that its huge success seems a matter of course, though the two singles that proceeded it, Bad Habits and Shivers, collectively spent 15 weeks at the top of the UK charts, the latter knocking the former off the No 1 spot.

Ed Sheeran: = album cover
Ed Sheeran: = album cover Photograph: Publicity image

It doesn’t feature anything as authentically head-turning as Sing, the brilliant Pharrell Williams-assisted single from 2014’s x that repositioned Sheeran as a pop artist rather than an acoustic troubadour. Its excursion into R&B territory, with Stop the Rain, is well turned rather than startling. Instead, = settles for gently nudging at the boundaries of what he’s known for, most notably on the opening Tides, which thunders along, driven by distorted guitars and double-time drums, and closer Be Right Now, which arrives unexpectedly welded to a Giorgio Moroder-ish synth line. As a result, whatever you already think about Sheeran, = isn’t going to alter it, and neither will a critic’s review.

If you lean towards the view that his success is down to commercial songwriting skill, an ability to write lyrics that connect directly with a vast audience and an innate understanding of what people want, then there’s ample evidence for that. The chorus of single Overpass Graffiti is so finely composed and nailed-on that the question doesn’t seem so much if it’ll get to No 1 as whether it’ll still be there at Christmas, rivalling his forthcoming festive collaboration with Elton John. And the only thing potentially stopping First Times from usurping his 2014 single Thinking Out Loud as the song most likely to be chosen for the first dance at innumerable weddings is the specifiable opening line – “I thought it’d feel different playing Wembley” – although there are no such issues with the similarly themed The Joker and the Queen, an intimate piano ballad with a genuinely lovely melody.

On the other hand, if you believe that Sheeran is a craven pop Machiavelli driven entirely by commercial concerns, you could alight on the audible influence of the Weeknd’s 2020 album After Hours, most specifically Blinding Lights, the biggest-selling single of last year. Something akin to that album’s take on synthy 80s pop runs through Bad Habits (which also gives a melancholy little nod towards Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy, and successfully conjures up an anticipatory night-falling-on-a-city atmosphere), Shivers and Overpass Graffiti.

If your take is that Sheeran is a writer unable to curb a tendency to schmaltz, there’s Sandman, a song about his baby daughter replete with music-box chimes and lyrics about rainbows and shakes of a lamb’s tail that any diabetic should consider avoiding lest they end up in a coma. And Love in Slow Motion, a song about finding time to have it off within a busy marriage. But if you think part of his charm lies in an unvarnished, no-filter approach to songwriting, which leads him to release things that more cool and calculating heads might consider beyond the pale, well: same answer. These songs are the musical equivalent of a heat-of-the-moment social media post from an artist who, alongside Adele, launched the pervasive latterday idea that pop stars should be relatable, everyday figures.

And rather like Adele’s new single Easy on Me, if you loved what came before, you will love this – each artist has ascended to a plane of success where it doesn’t matter if you make more of the same, and actually, it could be disastrous if you didn’t. = is an album of foregone conclusions: everything from multi-platinum success to the accompanying backlash feels preordained. For all the negative words that might sometimes cut deep, you get the feeling Sheeran might have quietly come to an accommodation with things as they are. Understandably, given his sales figures, he doesn’t sound like an artist in the business of changing people’s minds.

What Alexis listened to this week

Perc – Greed Dance
Sometimes you need to hear something that’s going to scourge your brain: no one does white-knuckle losing-your-mind-at-4am techno like Perc.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Ed Sheeran: Subtract review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week
Grief and his wife’s brush with cancer inspired Sheeran to make this insular record with Aaron Dessner of the National. It’s downcast yet full of new ideas – but will fans take to it?

Alexis Petridis

04, May, 2023 @11:01 PM

Article image
Ghetts: Conflict of Interest review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week
Big-label backing and unusual, beautiful arrangements should finally propel Ghetts, long a critic’s favourite, into the big time

Alexis Petridis

11, Feb, 2021 @1:32 PM

Article image
‘The world is now coming to Africa’: why Madonna and Ed Sheeran want a piece of Afrobeats
West African artists such as Davido, Fireboy DML and Amaarae are ruling pop on their own terms, reflecting a new cultural pride – and western pop stars want in

Christine Ochefu

04, Mar, 2022 @8:40 AM

Article image
Alfie Templeman: Mellow Moon review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week
Upbeat debut with surprising sonic touches succeeds as amiable, fresh-faced pop, yet there’s a feeling of a young artist pulling his punches

Alexis Petridis

26, May, 2022 @11:00 AM

Article image
Adele: 30 review – the defining voice of heartbreak returns
While the topic of her divorce is all-consuming, the singer seems to be pushing gently at the boundaries of what people expect of her

Alexis Petridis

17, Nov, 2021 @1:09 PM

Article image
SG Lewis: Times review – soaring, subtle disco for kitchen dancefloors
Given the British producer’s skill for emotionally attuned nightclub elation, his debut shouldn’t suffer from the shutdown of its natural habitat

Alexis Petridis

18, Feb, 2021 @12:00 PM

Article image
Kenny Beats: Louie review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week
The hip-hop producer’s debut album is affectionately infused with the spirit of his father’s mixtape introductions, along with good splash of obscure 70s soul

Alexis Petridis

26, Aug, 2022 @7:40 AM

Article image
Paramore: This Is Why review – deft songs of millennial malaise
The pop-punk band have progressed from teenage bile to thirtysomething angst, expressed with agitated drumming, angular guitars, big riffs and heartfelt lyrics

Alexis Petridis

10, Feb, 2023 @12:04 AM

Article image
Gorillaz: Cracker Island review – smaller, subtler, and better for it
Damon Albarn has reined in the excess – though there are still cameos from the likes of Bad Bunny and Stevie Nicks – for a trim album that is one of the band’s best

Alexis Petridis

23, Feb, 2023 @12:00 PM

Article image
Alicia Keys: Keys review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week
The 65m-selling singer-songwriter is back with a uniquely conceived double album, but both its laidback and upbeat sides fall far short of extraordinary

Alexis Petridis

09, Dec, 2021 @11:11 AM