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Ed Sheeran - = (Album Review)

Thursday, 04 November 2021 Written by Huw Baines

Photo: Dan Martensen

Ed Sheeran’s affable persona is somewhat misleading once the singer-songwriter gets down to brass tacks about the business of music. Rarely have we seen a musician so attuned to the shifting, streaming-optimised tastes of consumers, and equally it is unusual to see one so comfortable swimming in waters populated by industry sharks.

His new record—his fourth, and the latest to bear a mathematical symbol as its name—is all too happy to display its all things to all people streak front and centre, skipping between eminently popular sounds while dispensing lyrics that wouldn’t ruffle a feather in a chicken coop. It’s slick, so slick. But that’s hardly news, is it?

It’s tempting to sit back and admire the construction of ‘=’, appreciate the way it borrows the Springsteen-lite that has propelled Sam Fender to the top on the opener, Tides, or understand the built in virality behind the synth-pop of Bad Habits and its vampire-themed video. 

But to do so would mean devoting attention to these facsimiles at the expense of something even nominally closer to the real thing.

Overpass Graffiti, for example, shoots for heartland rock and falls some way short of the Killers’ recent glossy dabbling in the format, almost demanding that one turn to the new War on Drugs record, which is hardly anti-mainstream in its freshly hook-focused presentation, as a palate cleanser.

There are also precious few of the acoustic songs that made Sheeran’s name, a development somewhat at odds with the themes on show: his experiences as a new father, turning 30, the passing of time and its effects on relationships. These ideas are rendered in almost inert terms, with no blood and guts. Even his love songs are couched in such cliched terms that it’s almost shocking. “I love it when you do it like that,” he sings on Shivers, conjuring thousands of other (often better) songs in the process.

The thing is, none of this matters. At this stage, Ed Sheeran is as close to a sure thing as there is. ‘=’ will rack up many, many streams, sell many, many copies, and many, many tickets will be shifted in its serene wake. To disagree is to scream into a void not entirely of our own making.

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