While you were deliberating the merits of the new Lorde single last week, a tiny ginger songsmith from Yorkshire was casting a long ominous shadow across the contemporary pop landscape.
Last Friday, Ed Sheeran released his typographically challenging new album ÷, the follow-up to his hugely successful + and x. (It’s the kind of stunt Prince might have pulled if he’d been really into math instead of fucking.) Every one of these 16 new Sheeran songs landed in the British midweek charts’ Top 20, and while things aren’t quite so grim stateside, that’s what we said smugly after Brexit, and now look who's president. Divide, as I guess we’re calling it, broke Spotify first-day streaming records and will top the Billboard 200 next week as the biggest selling album of 2017. We’re doomed.
Sheeran’s a reliable and recognizable pop type: a white middle-of-the-road acoustic singer-songwriter with a warmly soulish delivery and a facility with last year’s rhythms. On the current single “The Castle on the Hill,” an electric guitar chinga-da-chings with borrowed U2vian grandeur, its swoop reminiscent of the days when Coldplay was aching to be the food-court version of Radiohead. But mostly Sheeran drives the songs forward with his own chunky acoustic guitar rhythms, piggybacking off the Hacky Sack funk of the Dave Matthews Band and vamping like he’s trying to remember the chorus to the John Mayer song that was playing when he lost his virginity.
“Oh, that doesn’t sound so bad,” you say, because I haven’t gotten around to telling you that he raps.
He’s tried to deny it. “I’m not a rapper/ I’m a singer with a flow,” Sheeran protested a few years ago on “Take It Back” – yeah, tell it to the cultural appropriation judge, mister. On Divide’s lead track, “Eraser,” Ed sounds a tad like Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park might after the SSRIs kicked in, ranting rhythmically about the downside of his success. Apparently rap is now the musical style white people use to complain about being rich, just as they once played the blues to complain about being poor.
Because you are apparently not permitted to write about Ed Sheeran without discussing his appearance, here are a few things he looks like, according to Twitter:
- Ron Weasley
- the cactus enemy from Super Mario
- a rough draft of a muppet
- a heartbroken sloth
- the unholy child of Boris Johnson & Garfield
- that kid at school who has nosebleeds all the time
- a huge Ed Sheeran fan waiting in line to see Ed Sheeran
None of these mean-spirited comparisons are 100 percent untrue, though they exaggerate the homeliness of a pleasant-enough face that’s reassuringly spherical in a world of famous, desirable cheekbones that look like they could draw blood. Sheeran’s innocuous looks, however, mask a cold wronged-nice-guy mean streak. The man responsible for Justin Bieber’s profitably soft-spoken blast at a supposedly stuck-up ex, “Love Yourself,” regularly targets the character flaws of women who no longer sleep with Ed Sheeran and the men they now sleep with instead. Here his victim is a former lover who’s started eating kale and keeping up with the Kardashians since leaving him for a “New Man,” a bloke who has “his eyebrows plucked and his arsehole bleached.” What sort of woman would choose vitamin-rich greens and personal grooming over Ed Sheeran?
That lyric gives you an idea of Sheeran’s writing style -- he has a knack for vivid yet tedious description, like the graduate of a writing workshop that emphasized the importance of using concrete nouns. As he matures (let’s face it, he ain’t going nowhere), he’ll probably demonstrate “growth” not through wiser lyrics but through a wider palette of sound effects. There are steel drums on “Barcelona,” “Bibia Be Be Ye” dips into Afropop as visions of Graceland dance in its head, and Sheeran’s current (and first) number-one hit, “The Shape of You,” hops along to an insinuating marimba pattern I dare you to call “Caribbean” without quotation marks. At this rate, by the time Sheeran gets to Square Root he’ll probably be describing his sound as “jazzy.”
Let’s complain about that hit a little more. Not only does the non-idiomatic “shape of you” make Sheeran's partner sound like an unusual cloud formation, but his coy refrain of “I'm in love with your body” is so clearly crafted to sneak past the parental control settings that its euphemistic lechery sounds crasser than if he’d just called the song “Damn, That Ass!” Sheeran, to his partial credit, rarely leers like this. More often, he yearns. Patiently, plaintively, adequately, Ed Sheeran yearns. You look perfect tonight, he informs some imaginary listener too young to have been conceived to Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight,” a listener likely tiptoeing for the first time into the rapids of desire and heartbreak, a listener who has made Sheeran’s music the soundtrack to her own private yearning, establishing a sacred and judgment-proof bond that no criticism can or should sever. Avert your eyes, tween-to-teen Sheerios--none of my vitriol is meant for you.
And yet, think back to how the great teenpop of the turn of the millennium transcended commonplace lyrics to rocket suitably empathetic adults back to their own teenhood – the electronic bludgeon of Britney hits captured the terror and ecstasy of sexual discovery, the immensity of boy band harmonies confounded sexual and existential longing. Sheeran, to my ears, pulled off something like that just once, with his 2014 single “Photograph.” Picture Ed pining for you and recall the first time you realized your own absence could be powerful enough to generate such a gorgeous swell of misery. I'd like to think Sheeran could pull that off again. Then again, Divide has a song called “How Do You Feel (Paean).” Paean! Who died and made you Sting, Ed Sheeran?
Doomed, I tell you.