Producer: Ed Sheeran, Benny Blanco
Release Date: March 1, 2017
Ed Sheeran is an English guitar-playing singer-songwriter whose early career consists of trite and whiny acoustic ballads. He paints himself a guitar-plucking troubadour, but appears as the geekier, more pathetic little brother of that douche who would always bring his acoustic guitar to the house party to inevitably break into uninspired rendition of “Wonderwall” nobody asked for. I think that at this point it’s rather evident I’m not a fan. Despite this, I’ve always had a certain appreciation for the fact that he has achieved success by making his own kind of music – especially something so far removed from the typical Top 40 fodder as singer-songwriter folk. As of writing this, his single “Shape of You” has spent six weeks as Billboard number one, and all of the 16 tracks off his new album Divide are currently occupying spots in the UK Top 20.
Sheeran’s third studio album ÷, or Divide if you’re somebody who cannot be bothered with copypasting, was preceded by two very different singles: the aforementioned “Shape of You” was a Sia-esque club track; and the guitar-driven “Castle on the Hill” veers somewhere into territory of U2, Kings of Leon and Mumford & Sons, and namedrops Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” in its lyrics. The two tracks, released the same day, are like night and day as far as Sheeran’s discography is concerned. The stark difference between the tracks, as well as their simultaneous release, is not only intentional, but also telling of the album to come.
Divide, while not as sexy an innuendo as the previous album’s Multiply, is fittingly named: the album seems to be divided in carefully calculated portions, each of which is aimed at specific target demographic. While it should not be a surprise to anyone that a charting artist of Sheeran’s caliber would be an assembly line product of the corporate music industry treadmill, Divide seems particularly dubious in this regard. There are the usual, saccharine slow ballads Sheeran is known for, like “Perfect”, “Save Myself”, “Dive”, “How Would You Feel”, and roughly ten thousand other similar tracks; the semi-spiritual “Supermarket Flowers” aiming probably to climb charts on the bible belt Christian stations; the aforementioned laser-guided classic rock station missile “Castle on the Hill”; every track on the album seems to be artificially constructed to fill a certain quota. Best example of this is the track “Galway Girl”, one of the album’s many half-acoustic rap-pop songs, this time spiced with an honest-to-god Irish fiddle. The song is admirable in its sheer audacity, but at the same time it comes off as a calculated, tailor-made attempt to pander to the potential Irish and (Irish-American) audiences, something Sheeran has openly admitted in an interview with The Guardian.
Combined with Sheeran’s way of constructing his lyrics from the most tired and overused cliches imaginable, one would think Divide is completely without redeeming qualities. However, there’s one slight saving grace: Sheeran’s genuine performance. No matter how trite or cliched the things he says are, he seems to fully believe in them himself. This disarming approach makes tracks like the naive “What Do I Know?” kind of cute and inoffensive, even if it contains lines like “life is more than fitting in your jeans”. Then again, this works both ways: “Shape of You” is a slimy love song for someone else’s body, reminding me of the many, many Jason DeRulo songs about similar matters. However, where Mr. DeRulo comes across as a disingenuous, talentless hack with every word that comes out of his lips, the absolute conviction of Sheeran makes lines like “Last night you were in my room / now my bedsheets smell of you” so disgusting and grossly real that I feel like taking a cleansing shower I every time hear the track.
Appropriate for its name, Divide is a rather dualistic product: on one hand it is unquestionably calculated and cynical in its manufacturing; on the other hand Ed Sheeran really sells is with his performance, which in a way makes it all the more embarrassing. Then again, it obviously doesn’t matter how good or bad the album is. It has already become the third fastest-selling album in the history of UK; it has already fulfilled its purpose.