At a time when pop and rock artistes are as much about image as about their music, Ed Sheeran is a delightful contradiction. The man, who shot to fame with The A Team in 2011, and has a penchant for naming albums after mathematics operators (there was “+”, followed by “x” and now comes “÷”), has made himself a household name by seemingly simply being himself. He does not indulge in the usual hullaballoo and hype that surrounds most ‘stars’ (the man actually went off social media to go on a backpacking trip because he felt his fans needed a break from him!) – in fact, he seems almost embarrassed to be referred to as a ‘star’ – and seems content to let his music do most of the talking.
And it has been doing some serious talking for him. At the time of writing, Sheeran is one of the bestselling artists in the world, with sales going into millions and with a massive fan following. And “Divide” (that’s how we have been advised to pronounce “÷”) is his first album in three years. Needless to say, expectations are sky high, not least because the first two singles released from the album “Shape of You” and “Castle on the Hill” – especially the former – have gone and topped charts quite thoroughly.
Actually, those two numbers – the peppy and danceable “Shape of You” and the almost U2 like guitar driven “Castle on the Hill” provide an apt summary of the album that is Divide. There are a dozen tracks here (16 if you go for the Deluxe edition) and whatever they are, they are definitely not confineable to a genre. You get a fair indication of what’s coming when Sheeran kicks off the album with “Eraser” which starts with a guitar solo and then moves into rap (yes!) territory, and is almost defiantly cynical (And when the world's against me is when I really come alive/ And every day that Satan tempts me, I try to take it in my stride/), although the chorus is typically Sheeran-like – hummable and infectious. This is followed by the memoir-soaked “Castle on the Hill,” when the guitars open up in a manner reminiscent of “Where the Streets Have No Name,” and Sheeran sings about his teen years, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and his first kiss. It is a bit wannabe Springsteen in some stages. So you have rap and rock, and then suddenly we see a slowing of the pace and even a touch of reggae in “Dive.” The cynicism of “Eraser” is evident here, even though in a slightly more wistful rather than defiant tone (‘Don’t tell me you need me/ If you
don’t believe it/ So let me know the truth/ Before I dive into it”).
Before you ask, no, he is not all cynical about the tender sentiment for he goes “I found a love for me/ Darling, just dive in and follow my lead” in the equally slow and much more sentimental “Perfect,” which is Valentine’s Day material, really. Mind you, he reverts to being sad in “Happier” when he talks about seeing “you” in someone else’s rooms, and tries to feel happy for her, once again in slow and slightly sappy mode.
Truth be told, methinks Sheeran is at his best when he opts for being peppy and playful. And this is perhaps most evident in the marimba-driven, insanely infectious “Shape of You” (originally planned for Rihanna, we hear) which is going to be many people's favourite number of the album. And then rap comes charging back in my own personal favourite, Galway Girl which sees Sheeran get perhaps the most innovative with his musical arrangements, blending folk and Celtic arrangements with some very peppy pop as he sings “She beat at darts/ She beat me at pool/ Then she kissed me as if there was no one else in the room.” (To think that some had advised against including the number in the album) And well, he is delightfully playfully jealous when he pulls down his former lover’s new boyfriend in “New Man”, rapping “I hear he's on a new diet at watches what he eats/ He’s got his eyebrows plucked and his asshole bleached/ Owns every single Ministry CD/ Tribal tattoos and he don't know what it means.” Which is not to say, he does not revel in slow mode. “Supermarket Flowers” which closes out the regular album, is a paean to his mum is the stuff which will jerk tears out of many people’s eyes. it is slow, sad and sentimental sees Sheeran blending melancholy with melody effectively for perhaps the only time in the album. His other slow numbers frankly do not strike a chord.
So where does “÷” divide stand after its forty six-odd minutes are through (no, we don’t think the Deluxe version is really worth it – the four additional songs don’t do much)? Well, truth be told, it stands in classic Ed Sheeran territory. There is nothing eye-poppingly sensational or revolutionary about it. And some of the more puritanical critics will be exceedingly annoyed at him for not daring to be different. But if you are an Ed Sheeran fan, this album will for the most part be right up your alley for it generally sticks to the straight, narrow, generally amiably sweet road that the Englishman chooses to follow. Yes, we can accuse him of being a tad too sappy an inconsistent in places, but then that is a small price to pay for what on the whole is a very pleasant listening experience. No, you won’t see people chanting Sheeran’s lyrics when they go out on protest marches, and he will not be a “cult figure” to rally the youth. But people will listen to him sing. Again and again. Because he is so easy on the ear. And comes with no complications.
Sheeran sort of sums up himself in “What do I know?”:
“I'm just a boy with a one-man show
No university, no degree, but lord knows
Everybody's talking 'bout exponential growth
And the stock market crashing in their portfolios
While I'll be sitting here with a song that I wrote…”
Aye, it is a good place to be.
Should you invest in “÷”? Not if you want your world shaken up.
But then not all of us want that, do they?
Audio CD: Rs 799/ Rs 899 (Deluxe edition)
iTunes: Rs 150/ Rs 200 (Deluxe edition)