Album review: Ed Sheeran makes a calculated move with Divide
Soft-spoken and frequently bespectacled, Ed Sheeran is the unlikeliest of global pop stars. Even after 10 million sales of his previous album, 2014’s x, the singer from London’s leafy suburbs would still look more at home in a corner of a student cafe than headlining the world’s biggest stages. This is not a man who appears predisposed to the jet-set life. “I was younger then, take me back,” he sings on the rocking but wistful single Castle on the Hill. “I can’t wait to go home.”
Then again, this is a record that feels actively built for live shows rather than bedroom listening.
His album titles may be abstract – all three are mathematical symbols – but the songs are increasingly simple.
Anyone attracted aboard by, say, Sheeran’s hip-hop leanings, will be particularly perturbed by What Do I Know?, which resembles a children’s rhyme with its jaunty refrain that “we could change this whole world, with a piano”. Really, Ed? Good luck with that. Sheeran has written so many hits for others – Justin Bieber’s huge Love Yourself was originally intended for this record – which makes you wonder if the gifted writer has given away too much gold and been stuck with leftovers. Shape of You, for example, has a catchy but crass chorus that sounds odd, and Divided is short of career-defining classics.
Having broken through with the social commentary of 2011’s The A Team, then smashed perceptions with the sublime pop of Sing, from x, his third album is a step backwards.
Shelve those precariously high expectations, though, and this is still a decent pop record full of big, easy hooks destined for singalongs in massive stadiums.
Dive is a well-crafted quasi-soul, while Perfect and How Would You Feel (Paean) are modern updates of Eric Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight and Van Morrison’s Have I Told You Lately, respectively.
He takes occasional risks, too: Eraser and Galway Girl marry folk and rap with varying degrees of success; there are African-style harmonies on the Adele-like Happier, and enjoyably acerbic lyrics pepper the jealousy-powered New Man. But the finest moment here is Supermarket Flowers, a tribute to his late grandmother, so personal and poignant that he almost omitted it.
Divide may well divide his audience, but that song could move a mountain.