Imagine you’re the biggest and most popular male British pop star in the world. Now imagine that you’ve achieved that success by doing things your way – no auditions on X Factor or The Voice, no radical reinvention of your signature sound, no collaborations with the ubiquitous Sean sodding Paul. In fact, your USP is now so influential that you’re pretty much single-handedly responsible for every middle-class teenage busker now having a loop pedal as well as an acoustic guitar. You’ve played Wembley Stadium literally by yourself. Your biggest hit is a ballad that’s so out-of-step with the majority of modern chart music that it’s faintly ridiculous. It’s now been nearly three years since your last album.
So, for your long-awaited comeback, what do you do? Is the plan to take your Wembley triumph to the next level and become a fully-fledged stadium rock act, or do you defer to the tropes of the Top 40 to ensure your relevance?
Well, if you’re Ed Sheeran, you manage to have your cake and eat it by doing both. In January, Sheeran released both ‘Castle On The Hill’, a full-on, U2-style arena singalong, and ‘Shape Of You’, a catchy tune with a strong tropical house flavour, both of which instantly went to the chart summit and stayed there seemingly forever. Crisis? What crisis?
Clearly, the man’s a canny operator. He’s always known his way around a song, but as his career has evolved, he’s made a happy knack of crafting exactly what resonates with people. He’s written so many top-notch tracks that in the last 18 months, Justin Bieber has taken two of his cast-offs (‘Love Yourself’ and ‘Cold Water’) to Number 1.
This Midas touch is all over ‘÷’, a record which is astonishingly assured. Sheeran may present himself as the regular dude in an Etnies tee and a pair of Vans who got lucky, but he’s clearly honed his craft over a long period. Every single track on ‘÷’ has a strong hook, a nagging melody, something that makes it stick in your head. It’s rare to hear a song for the first time and feel like it instantly lodges in your mind but on ‘÷’, Sheeran somehow repeats that trick on 16 separate occasions.
Opening track ‘Eraser’ is a treatise on the perils of fame and the difficulty of keeping your feet on the ground – the kind of thing that usually makes people roll their eyes. However, Sheeran’s everyman persona shines through, meaning a situation that 99.9% of us will nearly come close to experiencing somehow becomes quotidian and relatable. Elsewhere, tracks are queuing up to rival ‘Thinking Out Loud’ as the quintessential Sheeran ballad. ‘Dive’, ‘Hearts Don’t Break Around Here’ and ‘How Would You Feel (Paean)’ all give it a good go but the winner is surely ‘Perfect’ – get ready to hear it at a wedding near you later in the year.
Sheeran’s not without a sense of humour, too. ‘Happier’ is a heartfelt track about an ex finding love elsewhere and Sheeran trying to be fine with that – all very grown-up and noble stuff. Except for the fact it’s followed by ‘New Man’, a hip-hop inspired track about, yes, an ex finding love elsewhere, that’s so deliciously petty it becomes hilarious (“He’s got his eyebrows plucked and his arsehole bleached / Owns every single Ministry CD”).
Also peppered throughout ‘÷’ are tracks where Sheeran tries out new styles just for fun. ‘Bibia Be Ye Ye’ has a distinct Afrobeat flavour and Barcelona sounds, unsurprisingly, Spanish. It doesn’t always quite work – ‘Galway Girl’s marriage of beats and traditional Irish folk sails a little too close to parody – yet still each track maintains that sprinkling of Sheeran stardust.
I know, you know, Ed Sheeran knows, and even your granny knows that ‘÷’ is destined to be a monumental hit – it wouldn’t be a surprise to see sales records fall before 2017 is out. It’s a record that’s going to take him to the next level of popularity and fame, up alongside Drake, Beyoncé and Adele. Clearly, your friend who exclusively listens to Boiler Room sets and Autechre B-sides is going to dislike it, but that’s beside the point. Maybe he (and it will be a he) should approach ‘÷’ with more of an open mind, because it’s packed full of tunes that have an undeniable quality and mark the point where Ed Sheeran goes truly stratospheric. It’s less ‘÷’, more conquer.
Words: Joe Rivers
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