Ed Sheeran came back with a bang.
On December 13, 2016 — exactly one year after he announced he would be taking a hiatus because he felt he was “seeing the world through a screen and not [his] eyes” — Sheeran posted images of a plain light blue square across all his social media platforms, indicating the coming release of a new album.
The light blue turned out to correlate with the color of the album cover for his third studio album, ÷ (Divide), which was released on March 3, 2017. Two singles were released on January 6 as a prelude to ÷. “Castle on the Hill” and “Shape of You” soared to the tops of international charts, breaking several records and generating much anticipation for more content that was nearly three years in the making. The songs are polar opposites — “Castle on the Hill” gives a rich, vintage and nostalgic account of Sheeran’s time growing up in a small town in England, whereas “Shape of You” oozes of city nightlife and debauchery — but the two appropriately hinted at the wide range of songs that would appear on the full album. In line with his first two records, ÷ features a solid color background, a mathematical symbol as its title and 12 songs on the standard edition (16 on the deluxe).
But ÷ differs greatly from his previous musical endeavors in ways that shake up my established perception of the kind of music Sheeran is known for. Though his sophomore album x (Multiply) was already moving toward a more pop-dominated sound, it still retained elements of his first album, + (Plus), that was filled with more laid back, indie folk-esque music. ÷ dives further into the mainstream with pop and electronic songs that command a greater presence and thus overpower his signature acoustic songs. Though slower melodies are still present (“Supermarket Flowers” quietly pays tribute to his late grandmother and “How Would You Feel” is a minimalistic declaration of love), it is clear that the goal of this album was more to experiment with new themes, rather than preserve the norms of his past music (though he does a tad of that too).
Listen to ÷ on Spotify:
“Eraser” in particular seems indicative of the kind of genre Sheeran seems to be trying to break into. Dark, brooding and fast-paced, it fits the message he’s trying to get across about the misleading façade of stardom – but the rapped verses sound unnatural, even forced. Blame it on my expectations of something more conventional, but “Eraser” simply doesn’t cut it the way the similarly dark and upbeat “Shape of You” does. “New Man” sounds stilted as well; though it doesn’t incorporate rap the way “Eraser” does, it’s plain like a debut single from an average singer looking to break into the music industry for the first time (none of which is applicable to Sheeran).
Despite these disappointing tracks, his ventures into pop aren’t entirely unsuccessful – “What Do I Know?” works as a fun, uplifting tune about the power of positivity and love, and “Galway Girl” fuses folk with pop in a unique and adventurous twist, something I’d love to hear more of.
For all its experimentation, ÷ does provide some vivid and moving songs that sound more like classic Sheeran. “Happier” is a flowing ballad about an ex who moved on quickly, while “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here” is most in line with the more peaceful-sounding tracks of his old albums and slowly fills out with a rich chorus that matches the vibe of his current album. Sheeran is reliably good at this type of music (see past hits “Thinking Out Loud” and “Photograph”), and he’s able to highlight it once again in ÷.
All in all, the album is definitely a conglomeration of multiple styles of music, from Irish folk to mainstream pop. Though that makes it a little confusing (playing it on shuffle resulted in a lot of checking to be sure I was still listening to the same album), it’s interesting in that it’s clearly experimental. And while I respect the desire to branch out, I’m still partial to the style of his old music and think that it better showcases his singing voice. My hope is that Sheeran will continue to retain elements of his original style moving forward, but only time will tell.
As he sings in “Eraser,” “welcome to the new show.”
Natalie Fung is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]