It is wise to approach artists like Ed Sheeran, who are both colossally successful and toe-curlingly sincere, with a healthy dose of cynicism. Creator of lad-ballads, wearer of boring T-shirts and modeller of a general aesthetic that could only be described as Perfect-Son-In-Law-core, Sheeran is an easy target for jokes directed generally at the awfulness of pop culture, for jibes from alt-bros about the gullibility of the masses. He comes on stage with his hair full of VO5 “putty”, sings his little songs about love, pops to Nando’s with his black card and then goes home to bathe in his piles of cash. Rhyming “shape of you” with “push and pull like a magnet do” and rapping that his ÷ Tour “grossed half a billi” remain some of the silliest lyrical shortcuts in British pop history. What’s not to mock?
Despite this, I have always felt a sort of dogged loyalty towards him. I once ended up on an abortive night out in his company in the Norfolk market town of Diss (as anyone who grew up there, like Ed and I, will tell you, East Anglia is small). It was 2010, before he was famous, and he had just played a support slot at the Corn Hall (support! The Corn Hall!), where a small local band I knew were playing. There was, naturally, nowhere in Diss that constituted a suitable post-gig destination, so we ended up in a kebab shop. Sheeran ordered chips and cheese (cf his 2010 song “One Night”), and then asked the guy to put them back under the grill so the cheese melted.
Aside from making him my extremely tenuous claim to fame, this experience cemented in reality for me Sheeran’s status as a grafter. It was during the phase in his career when he was sofa-surfing in London, gigging constantly, self-producing singles and EPs, desperately trying to make it. This was a time when The X Factor still turned out overnight stars; a pop landscape of Loud-era Rihanna and LMFAO. Sheeran made acoustic guitar loops and sang-rapped about sharing toothbrushes. He was struggling, like we think artists are supposed to, and he was doing his own thing.
A decade later, with the release of his fourth album, = (which follows +, x and ÷, begging the question of where he can go from here), Sheeran is now a tenuous claim to fame for the UK, which, in turn, is his dogged defender. Beneath the puppy-eyed exterior he possessed a fierce talent for writing catchy hooks and shaping songs, and he is now the most-followed and second-most streamed artist on Spotify, with 87 million followers and 75 million monthly listeners. He is a national treasure; the face of Heinz Ketchup. Most of all, he is the lovable underdog, with his mini acoustic guitar and scruffy hair and tattoos and old jeans, who not only gave rise to a generation of white male musicians with mini guitars, scruffy hair, tattoos and old jeans, but who completely undermined his own look by becoming a superstar.
Sheeran is quick to inform us things have changed since those early days: “I have grown up, I am a father now,” he announces in straight, robotic rhythm at the outset of opening track “Tides”, reminding us of both his unabashed lyrical literalness and penchant for one- and two-note melodies. True to form, he sings this track in his raw, emotive tenor over a wash of acoustic guitar, with a bridge in a cappella falsetto. It’s textbook Sheeran, and reassures listeners that while his life may have changed, he is still there to provide them with familiar and predictable musical comfort blankets, ones which make nostalgia for his early work part of the nourishing whole.
Sheeran’s music has evolved as he has been granted access to collaborators and bigger studios. There’s bigger instrumentation here – strings, Mumford and Sons-esque walls of guitar, electro beats. The two singles from = are primed both for Heart FM and sticky dance floors: slinky “Bad Habits” already has a four-on-the-floor synth and upbeat “Shivers” is crying out for some sort of horrible remix. They follow in the footsteps of 2018 mega-hit “Shape of You”, keeping him relevant, blending Sheeran’s distinctive voice and troubadour sensibility with R&B and house. And like much of Sheeran’s output they are enragingly catchy, yet retain a desperate lyrical sincerity, which spoils any promise of the mystique that entrenches properly sexy pop. “I never kissed a mouth that tastes like yours / Strawberries and something more,” he sings on “Shivers”. Ew.
The album’s egregious lack of irony is what lets it down – just when you think you could get into it, you’re hit with almost unbearable corniness and incomprehensible clichés about rain and beaches. He shoehorns in syllables and rhymes consistent with the weirdness of “magnet do”, like the clumsy “It’s been a while since we’ve been alone / Turn off the world and the telephone”. “Wrap me up between your legs and arms”, he sings on “Shivers” – excuse you, Ed.
Yet that Sheeran is utterly unembarrassed by wanting to “kiss your eyes” and singing very loudly about it is what makes him irresistible to fans. “First Times”, a romantic ballad on which Sheeran declares “the greatest thing I have achieved is four little words down on one knee” (Sheeran is, surely, king of the Wife Guys), will instantly become a thousand couples’ “song” and a thousand more’s first dance. His lack of subtlety makes his songs universally understandable and openly emotional, distilling into those oh-so distinctive Sheeran melodies – one note repeated, or coming up the scale, then down again – a big, wobbly feeling that lads nationwide have been struggling to articulate to their girlfriends for the long eight months of their relationship. Every time Sheeran releases an album, he says it for them, several times (here on “First Times”, “Collide” and “Love in Slow Motion”). Tears flow, iPhone torches are raised, cuddles are administered from behind, and the world is put to rights.
= is too long, and loses momentum in the middle. Sheeran’s output is so prolific that you get the sense he is trying to cram too much in, that he cannot resist the temptation to showcase another hook. It picks back up towards the end, demonstrating his ability as a musical chameleon. “2step” begins with the quick-flow half-rap of the early days and opens out into an R&B chorus. There is an emotional ballad about a friend who died (“Visiting Hours”), and a reggae-inspired lullaby for his baby daughter (“Sandman”). This is Sheeran through and through – love, riffs and boring T-shirts – and it also reveals something about pop music. Every time, Sheeran delivers all the ingredients, the perfect formula – aspiring stars would give a limb to write a song like these – and yet only sometimes does the result soar, proof that pop needs a little bit of magic along with its undertone of ordinary. Ed Sheeran – British underdog, master of melody and apostle of chips and cheese – clearly has just enough of each.