Ed Sheeran, ÷ (Divide), review: Singer's third album perfects a pop formula

4
Ed Sheeran, pictured in February 2017
Ed Sheeran, pictured in February 2017 Credit: Anthony Ghnassia/SIPA/REX/Shutterstock

Ed Sheeran’s third album will almost certainly be the biggest selling British album of the year. There are 12 tracks, and each is perfectly formed. 

This is a set of direct, punchy, melodic, catchy, meaningful songs, with verses and choruses in all the right places. They are beautifully sung and delivered with a compelling and endearing mixture of charismatic swagger and emotional honesty. The quality doesn’t let up from beginning to end. It is very good. And if you can feel a “but” coming on, it is a very small one.  Like Adele’s third blockbuster album, 25, it does not push into new places or extend the range of the artist, rather it offers a perfect synthesis of everything that has made them so universally popular.

It is named after the mathematical division symbol but not, I suspect, for any reason more compelling than branding. His 2011 debut was named + (“plus”) and the 2014 blockbuster follow up was x (“multiply”)

Ed Sheeran's ÷

That one did indeed multiply Sheeran’s appeal, establishing the acoustic singer-songwriter as one of the biggest stars in contemporary pop. But this is not an album of division so much as consolidation, and I don’t think they have a mathematical symbol for that. Maybe he should have called it Ed² (“squared”). For better or worse, it’s an Ed Sheeran album that sounds pretty much exactly like what people think an Ed Sheeran album should sound like.

Ed Sheeran buys his new album from HMV Oxford Street Ed Sheeran buys his new album from HMV Oxford Street
00:39

Evidently he is not ready for subtraction yet, although he did take a year off in 2016. He opens his new album with Eraser, a snappy folk rap in which he looks back on his musical career and attempts to explain the dizzying and sometimes overwhelming effects of fame (“I’m well aware of certain things that can destroy a man like me”) without recourse to lonely-at-the-top clichés. Exuding typical positivity, Sheeran makes a mantra out of turning adversity into opportunity: “I’ll find comfort in my pain.” The track builds with thrilling urgency, which is something Sheeran has proved adept at, adding elements bit by bit until a bouncy rhythm section is rattling along beneath him like he’s strapped to a runaway train. It’s a good trick and he pulls it off on every one of the up-tempo songs.

The way Sheeran brought hip hop inflections into acoustic singer-songwriting was the driving force in his rise to fame but it no longer has a quality of surprise. His rap style is fluent but incredibly distinctive, almost always in the same rhythm and flow. He is very honest and direct, with a sharp turn of phrase, and you really get the sense of a man getting things off his chest, but it is becoming over-familiar, forsaking some of the ragged peculiarity that brought so much oddball energy to his first two albums. Division is by far Sheeran’s smoothest collection.

Ed Sheeran, pictured in Melbourne, Australia in February 2017 Credit: Hyland/Newspix/REX/Shutterstock

Indeed, at times it essays a lush romantic polish that might verge on cheesy easy-listening if there wasn’t something quite so grittily substantial about the force of Sheeran’s personality. Even at his most sentimental there is a quality of earthiness shoving intently from the inside of his songs. He has the gift of sincerity, for saying potentially corny things and making them sound real.

Previous albums have demonstrated that he really knows how to write a beautiful, elegant and heartfelt ballad and ÷ is stuffed with them, apparently celebrating Sheeran being reunited with his childhood sweetheart. Chord progressions often adhere to standard blues soul patterns but he still manages to squeeze something fresh out of them. Dive is a raspy gem exploring longing and frustration, Happier a tender, self-punishing rumination on lost love, but Perfect may be a bit too perfect for its own good. Imagine a cross between Eric Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight and Chris De Burgh’s Lady In Red and you can decide for yourself whether to reach for a handkerchief or pass the sick bag. Personally, I can’t fault it. Those songs are considered classics for a reason. But with the sweet romantic dedication continuing on Hearts Don’t Break Around Here and How Would You Feel (Paean), the mood of mushy amorousness has the cumulative effect of rubbing off some of the edges that have made Sheeran such an endearingly awkward pop star. 

For me, the album springs to life on the more sharply observational Shape of You (already a huge hit single) and especially New Man, the latter riven with caustic jealousy (“Wears both shoes with no socks on his feet / I hear he’s on a new diet and watches what he eats / He’s got his eyebrows plucked and asshole bleached / … still I hear he makes you happy and that’s OK by me”). Sheeran is such an upbeat character, maybe (as the opening Erasure suggests) it takes adversity to really get him going. The toughest ballad by some distance is the album’s closer, Supermarket Flowers, tackles the death of his grandmother (although framed as a mother figure) and if you can get through that one with dry eyes you’re a stronger man than I.

Despite his penchant for mathematical symbols, it would be wrong to characterise this album as formulaic.  You have to remember what an unlikely superstar Sheeran really is. He played three nights at Wembley stadium armed only with an acoustic guitar and a loop pedal. But he might have just got a bit too good at the things that he’s already very good at. When the ginger, bespectacled, Suffolk folkie has got through conquering the world with Divide, it would be nice to see him ditch the equations and take a few chances.