Out of all the albums that have been announced and released during the pandemic, I have been most excited for this one. It’s been four long years since we’ve had new music from Ed Sheeran — I don’t count No. 6 Collaborations — and the prospect of another album to blast on repeat was an exciting one.
The strategic promotion for this record — with the sparing releases of a few singles over the past several months — filled me with a combination of anxious anticipation and excitement.
“Bad Habits” is not for me. It’s a synth-filled, electronic track with a theme that has been tackled so many times by so many artists it was almost frustrating that one of his 14 new songs was so bland and uninspired.
But then we had “Visiting Hours,” a song that deserves plenty of recognition. It is the strongest song on = and it might be one of the best songs that Sheeran has ever written. He has this knack for wrapping up the most unimaginable, inexpressible, raw pain into the most hauntingly poetic, beautiful songs. “Supermarket Flowers” and “Small Bump” come to mind here. And in that realm of turning pure sadness into beautiful music, Sheeran is perhaps unmatched.
“Visiting Hours” is not an easy song to listen to. It’s not an anthem anymore than it is a dance song to sing along to.
That opening line is such a simple plea, one that everyone has likely thought in some way but never vocalized.
“I wish that Heaven / Had visiting hours.”
And with this track, every musical element here exists to reinforce the lyrics — the slower, more stripped-down beginning, marked by its piano/light-synth combination, building into the latter verses and choruses which are marked by a stronger acoustic guitar presence, a healthy amount of echo and some powerful vocal layering accomplishes everything it is meant to and everything it should: the music reinforces and elevates the beauty in the lyrics without overpowering that message.
“Visiting Hours” is just a stunning track.
But I digress — the other singles that had been released before the record’s release had me nervous. And after five full beginning-to-end listens, I have come to the conclusion that this is a good album. It’s a solid showing with dependable songs. It’s certainly different than Sheeran’s previous work — his exploration of new musical sounds with a full band and plenty of synthesizers is evident on =. It is peppered with beautiful songs and driving classic Ed Sheeran anthems.
But it is not quite a great album.
Ed Sheeran is an incredibly talented musician and singer/songwriter. His voice sounds clearer, stronger and more controlled on = than it does on any of his previous albums. The controlled — albeit brief — moments of texture that he pulls into his voice on certain moments of certain songs are great; it’s something I wish he’d do more often.
And as a lyricist, he is on an altogether different level than most every songwriter on the scene today. He has a way of putting words together, coupled with an intriguing, rhythmic way of vocalization that just puts him head-and-shoulders above his contemporaries.
On =, his lyrics remain strong. The only real weak point on =, for want of a better word, is the sometimes jarring and mismatched music behind the vocals.
I heavily dissected “Visiting Hours” above on purpose — in its finessed meeting of words and music, it is an example that much of the album does not follow.
“Overpass Graffiti,” for example, is a beautiful song with beautiful intention. Again, Sheeran is an incredible songwriter. But that driving dance-beat that permeates the track is off-putting. Likewise, the synth-fills don’t really have a place in this song. That simple decision to essentially ‘dancify’ this song turned what could have been a great song into one that is merely a shell of what it could have been.
“Leave Your Life,” Sheeran’s personal favorite song on the record and a song that is lyrically — to dip into an over-used word of mine when discussing Ed Sheeran — beautiful. The story, the intention, the vocals, all great. But, once again, this is a song largely permeated by a strange, off-putting beat whose purpose I can’t place. That beat distracts from a song that, if played on a solo acoustic guitar, would be stunning.
“Collide,” is another song that, like the two previously discussed tracks, is inches short of greatness. I am constantly amazed at the way Sheeran puts words together to create a lyrical environment. But this song is permeated by this weird synthesized vocal fill and a full, fast-paced drum kit. Vocally, this song is one of the standouts.
As he enters that chorus, there’s just a touch of grit and texture, which pulls me into his story very completely. But that drum kit and electronic fill pull me out rather sharply. Once again, I’m just left wondering what it’s doing in this song, and when an acoustic version of it will be released.
On the whole, where ÷ was a largely external record, with Sheeran acting as a sharp conduit for vivid stories, = is an internal record, with Sheeran — gladly — pivoting to face himself and his new life. = is a love letter to his wife and child; a love letter to the life and state of mind having a family has granted him. That much is blatantly clear about this record, and that message rises far above the eclectic mix of piano-instrumentals and dance beats. Almost every song is a direct connection to his wife and daughter and there’s a simple joy in hearing this mega pop star choosing to release music that is absolutely permeated and completely inspired and written for his wife and daughter.
“Tides,” that driving first track, sums up the entire record before he even touches the chorus.
“I have grown up, I am a father now / Everything has changed but I am still the same somehow / You know I’ve never been afraid of death / But now I want to see the things that haven’t happened yet.”
That’s it; that’s the record. The Ed Sheeran that penned and performed and even promoted this album is a drastically different version of the Ed Sheeran of the X or ÷ era.
And “Tides” is a great song. That driving, pulsing guitar and heavily simplistic melody allow Sheeran to tap into his core, delivering this screaming, powerful, uplifting story about his own evolution.
“First Times” is a wonderfully classic Ed Sheeran throwback tune. It’s just him and that acoustic guitar. Once again, the legendary Wembley Stadium gets a name drop, but this is not an equivalent of “Eraser” — it is a love song to his wife that offers his twist on a bit of cliche.
“And I can’t wait to make a million more first times.”
“The Joker and the Queen” belongs on the soundtrack of an old Disney movie. The rhythm of the melody combined with that simple, piano and nothing else — plus the Joker/King/Queen metaphor — make for quite a solid soundtrack song. It’s not a standout, but it is a breath of something different in the midst of a record that is sometimes upsettingly eclectic.
“Sandman” is the most interesting song Sheeran has ever written. It is a simple lullaby written for his daughter. I love the fact that this song made it onto the record. I love that “Visiting Hours,” that melancholic story of loss, directly precedes this track of almost naive simplicity and joy. Sheeran’s tone on this track is even clearer, slightly higher, and full of a kind of wonder and happiness that the other tracks don’t have quite to this extent.
The moment and the intention of “Sandman” are more beautiful than the song, which is largely the case with the record.
Though it is a good album, the intention behind it is better than the album itself.