Photo Credit: Dan Martensen
Ed Sheeran’s debut album + (Plus) – that boasted four top 10 hits in the singer-songwriter’s home country of the UK – made him an easy target for critics; who saw him as a banal, guy-next-door writing forgettable by-the-numbers love songs. For the most part, however, Sheeran’s debut album has aged surprisingly well; in comparison to the countless other albums by nice-guys-with-guitars that dominated the 2010s, + felt like a cut above the rest: with more potent, affecting lyricism and showcasing a preternatural talent for melody creation. Critics and listeners alike seem to agree; in criticizing Sheeran’s later works, many have remarked on the superiority of his earlier works. Heck, even ’90s cult icon Tori Amos called “The A Team” “one of the best songs ever written,” earlier this year.
However, with subsequent releases – each, seemingly more overproduced than the last – the authenticity that defined the singer’s debut has gradually faded. Each subsequent album was saved by a handful of strong singles: x (Multiply) had “Photograph” and “Thinking Out Loud”, ÷ (Divide) had “Perfect” and, of course, the record-breaking “Shape of You.” Still, there was an unshakeable sense of diminishing returns with these releases; a fear that Sheeran’s latest LP = (Equals) does little to quell.
= begins on a relatively respectable note; opener “Tides” does an effective job of setting the scene – telling of the tribulations of fatherhood, recurring nightmares, and self-doubt. Countless others have done a better job this year of incorporating their Bruce Springsteen influence into their music – most notably Sam Fender, with his surprise sleeper hit “Seventeen Going Under” – but “Tides” is still perfectly pleasant while it’s on. Meanwhile, follow-up “Shivers” is an undeniably well-crafted pop song. Yes, the lyricism (“you give me the shivers”) is uninspired, but like the best Sheeran songs, it’s hard not to get the chorus stuck in your head after a few listens.
Ultimately, these by-the-numbers Sheeran songs end up being some of the album’s strongest, by sticking to a tried-and-tested formula that has yielded gold in the past. Sheeran’s comeback single “Bad Habits” is the album’s big swing and miss at pivoting to a new sound; ending up as a pale imitation of The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” – lacking any of that song’s magic and instant charm. “2Step” – where Sheeran tries his hand out at rapping – falls similarly flat.
For the most part, = fleets between uninspired rehashes of Sheeran’s trademark sound and ill-advised attempts at reinvention. However, there is one shining exception to this: “Visiting Hours.” While nothing new sonically for Sheeran, the song – centered on wanting to see a lost loved again – is undeniably affecting. Straightforward declarations of vulnerability here (“What would you do in my situation? // I hadn’t even a clue how to raise them”) work far better than Sheeran’s employment of cliche metaphors and similes elsewhere on this LP. “Visiting Hours”, ultimately, stands as a testament to the special songwriting talent that made Sheeran so beloved in the first place. It’s just a shame the rest of the album doesn’t do a better job showcasing this.