I am still genuinely unsure that if you picked any two songs from ÷, I would be able to identify that they were from the same album. Thus is the main confusion arising from an album on which every song sounds like it was written by a different person for a different singer, and finally cobbled together like a slightly more stylistically-cohesive Now That’s What I Call Music.
If that sounds like a negative opening paragraph, I’d like to somewhat dispel that first impression: in no way is ÷ a bad album. It is a very well produced collection of songs that all showcase various different aspects of Ed Sheeran’s ability, and to his credit many of the songs on this album hold up well by themselves. Tracks such as Shape of You and Castle on the Hill are certified tunes, though stylistically disparate.
This disparity is something that should be addressed early on – liking one single does in no way guarantee that the rest of the album will be to your taste. The genres encompassed by this album include: pop, rock, rap, dance, blues, tropical music, folk, Irish drinking songs, electronica, tribal music and country – and that’s probably missing a few. While Sheeran’s refusal to stick to a certain style does provide some variety, it also creates an aurally confusing package, and doesn’t commit enough to each genre to differentiate the tracks from each other.
This refusal to fully commit is exacerbated by a tendency towards truly uninteresting writing at times, with an overuse of standardized movements and pop clichés. For instance, the song Dive uses a repetitive bluesy guitar that almost treads into waltz territory, yet repeats this same tempo and pattern for the entire song. Lyrically, the song Perfect is a veritable feast of pop tropes – the opening lyric of “I found a love for me” is cringe-worthy enough, but the progression of the chorus through the overused lines “dancing in the dark”, “between my arms” and “dancing to our favourite song” almost begs belief.
Most of the negative characteristics are, however, happily left behind by the second half of the album. It is here that Ed Sheeran returns to his most genuine, with really beautiful songs such as Hearts Don’t Break Around Here, Supermarket Flowers, and Save Myself. The stark lyrical themes of Supermarket Flowers in particular stand out, with Sheeran lamenting the loss of his grandmother in a touching and poignant manner. Save Myself is another such downbeat song, dealing with themes of giving but not getting back, and is the song on the album that struck the closest personal note with me.
The latter sections see some interesting experimentation with the music too, as Sheeran invokes Spanish influences with his poppy yet rhythmic song Barcelona; and African influences with Bibia Be Ye Ye. Neither of these songs are standouts, but reflect some wider variety that doesn’t in this case detract from Sheeran’s core style.
Overall, ÷ is an album of two halves – the first half sounding calculated and produced for effect, yet containing arguably the strongest two songs; and the second half sounding genuine and heartfelt, with an overall higher quality yet with no tracks to match the quality of Castle on the Hill or Shape of You. It’s hard to know what to give this album – it certainly isn’t bad, even if it does fall prey to some pretty tedious tropes, but it isn’t exceptional either: the lack of a cohesive theme and some pretty soulless writing detract from any value it has as an overall package. Yet individual songs stand out on this album to such an extent that when viewed as a collection of music, it just about justifies itself as an album.
Best Songs: Castle on the Hill, Shape of You, Hearts Don’t Break Around Here, How Would You Feel (Paean), Supermarket Flowers