Ed Sheeran is a pop star. Sheeran has wandered a long way from the rainy day folk of “The A Team” and “Drunk.” From balancing lost love and playing the good boy to singing about sex workers, Sheeran maintained an air of the hurt but sensitive folk singer who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. But as the likes of bad-boy Jake Bugg rose and Justin Bieber went rogue, so did Sheeran. The x single, “Sing” began to chart his drunken past in a new way: one of adventure and partying. The interviews before Divide have been full of outrageous party stories–between punching Justin Bieber and drinking too much, Sheeran has had a full three years since the release of x and its hit singles, “Sing,” “Don’t,” “Photography,” and “Thinking Out Loud” among others.
The beginning of 2017 was Sheeran-palooza. (at least before Lorde came along and wowed us all). “Shape of You” and “Castle on the Hill” were released as double singles to Top 40 and Indie stations respectively. Sheeran stated how they act in a binary–one as a club hit and one as a mythology of England that will outlast his club self. Both are solid songs. “Shape Of You” uses a slinky, minimal vibe to build on the smooth vocals of Sheeran as a club-lover. This is the way of the pop star: to be both. Taylor Swift is both girl-next-door and girl megaboss. Not coincidentally, Sheeran worked with Swift on the non-single Red album cut, “Everything Has Changed.” “Shape Of You” is catchy, mesmerizing, and an instant hit. Its clear-cut Top 40 rise affirms this. “Castle on the Hill” acts as the other Sheeran we know. The one of older times, back to when he wrote about his youth, homeland, and regret mixed with nostalgia. Sheeran’s assessment is right, it will outlast “Shape of You”–but it won’t chart and it will remain a deep cut for hardcore Sheeran fans to marvel at for years to come for its complex lyrics that manage to weave together the small moments to make a larger story.
The rest of Divide plays out with Sheeran avoiding the clubs and trying to understand the world through the use stereotypes about love, supermarket love, exes who “sat beside the water reading” but are now “keeping up with Kylie and Kim.” While this may just read as the aggression of an ex, it also cracks the nice guy exterior that Sheeran tries so hard to keep up. Pitchfork has written more extensively about this. It’s a darker song from an otherwise plaintive album about good girls who look “perfect tonight” on the solo song “Perfect” Sheeran penned and produced himself. Other songs also commemorate perfect love–some more memorably than others. “How Do You Feel (Paean)” is a beautiful song. “Perfect” seems like it’s trying a little too hard to be a sequel to “Photograph,” another song hailed as one that would make Sheeran go down in history.
“Supermarket Flowers” is a beautiful ending to the album as it dissects mortality in a similar way that “Afire Love” worked on Sheeran’s previous effort. Few of the songs besides “Shape Of You” work as hits. Many of the songs act as retreads of sonic territory Sheeran has explored before. Through the many dull tracks there are also missteps such as “Galway Girl.” The new take on history, England, and Ireland are commendable and an interesting way to go–and the fiddle is a nice touch and nod to Sheeran’s folky past, but the song ends up feeling forced, dull, and boring. Sheeran ends up talking a lot on this record–but not saying too much. Sheeran skims into politics, the good girl stereotype, the millennial, and love but comes across as a man who wants a simple life and a simple family. Which is fine, but that isn’t something that elaborates or twists the mythos that Sheeran has set up. Maybe Sheeran should get married and write about that next.