Friday, 3 March 2017

Ed Sheeran - Divide

Ed Sheeran - Divide

Only Ed Sheeran could open an album with a grime track and end it with the soppiest of ballads.

In truth, all of his albums have been divided between opposing styles: the hip-hop influenced loop pedaller and the cheesy balladeer. Only now, on 'Divide', it's simply pronounced in the title. Predictably enough it's something of a mixed bag, an everyman singer serving everyone but lacking edge - a fitting metaphor for current British music from British music's biggest export in 2017.

For all the pomp of division, this album is remarkably safe. A handful of tracks may present a change of style, but really 'Divide' only nudges towards the boundaries of Sheeran's sound. That he can take varied genres and make them his own is impressive. That it still all sounds so familiar is a disappointment.

That's mostly true of the ballads, which merge social realism with a typical folk-tinge. Lead single Castle on the Hill set the tone here, merging reminiscence with U2 stadium guitars; later there's Supermarket Flowers, simple storytelling that's a clear ode to Sheeran's family. In between there's the likes of Dive, Perfect and How Would You Feel (Paean) - they're all nice enough songs, but as tearjerkers they're all so calculated towards the Adele demographic. Not even his raspy vocals can hide the schmaltz.

The exception is Happier, where Sheeran hits the jackpot of storytelling and Adele simplicity (even if it sounds a bit like Sam Smith). "Ain't nobody hurt you like I hurt you, but ain't nobody need you like I do," he sings in light falsetto over gentle guitar arpeggios, "baby you look happier, you do". It's a touching moment of acceptance that doesn't sound like he's trying too hard.

On the flip side are the uptempo tracks that borrow liberally from contemporary pop, sounding safely and inoffensively within current tastes. He spits rhymes on Eraser; he taps dancehall sounds on pop standout and other lead single Shape of You; he rap-sings verbosely over funk guitars on New Man, a song that could easily fit on any of his albums. This divider is a jack of all trades, but a master of none.

Yet we also get to hear Sheeran having some fun amongst all the tears and the relatability and the authenticity and the coolness. Galway Girl mixes rap with an Irish jig and some cheeky fiddle, something that makes a return on the folky Nancy Mulligan. Bibia Be Ye Ye is Sheeran's attempt at recreating Paul Simon's 'Graceland' album, inspired by his travels to Africa soon to be broadcast on Comic Relief. And Barcelona is just pure joy, with its infectious rhythms, whistling chorus and Spanish silliness in the final chorus.

It's on these tracks that Sheeran drops the authentic musician act, stops trying to sell records, stops trying to please everyone and just has fun. You get the impression that it's here we see the real Ed Sheeran.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Shape of You
* Happier
* Barcelona

Listen: 'Divide' is out now.