Ed Sheeran, Meh

Dan Martensen

Ed Sheeran, Meh

Dan Martensen

At first, I hoped Ed Sheeran could be contained. Nine years ago, shortly after Sheeran got his big spotlight moment on Taylor Swift’s Red, “The A Team” — a saccharine folk-pop ballad from the English singer-songwriter’s debut album + (plus), which had already blown up in his native country — established him as a pop-radio force in America as well. Dude was obnoxiously cloying, and his music was corny even at its best, so I crossed my fingers that he’d go away soon. When Sheeran started rapping and working with producers like Pharrell on 2014’s x (multiply), I suspected it would be his downfall, but no, it made him a much bigger star. He pushed all the way to the center of mainstream pop with 2017’s ÷ (divide), even daring to incorporate dancehall into his sound on the smash hit “Shape Of You.” He duetted with Beyoncé — and she was the one who needed him to get back to #1. He headlined stadiums, performing solo with just a guitar and a looping pedal. And in 2019, he took a victory lap with No.6 Collaborations Project, an LP with all-star rappers and singers on every track.

After that, Sheeran took a brief career hiatus to focus on other pursuits like becoming a dad and opening a bar, but he never really went away. His hits remained in circulation. He continued to write for other artists like Justin Bieber and BTS. His name kept popping up in headlines for personal and professional reasons. And then, this summer, he emerged with “Bad Habits,” a blandly dance-y exercise in lightweight Weeknd mimicry with a monumentally goofy video. I once again wondered whether his imperial phase might have come and gone. Instead, “Bad Habits” was another massive hit, and the album it preceded will surely be as well. Credit Sheeran with this much: No matter how unstylish you find his music to be, you have to admit it’s incredibly infectious. And like a global pandemic — say, the virus that might have cost Sheeran his appearance on this coming weekend’s Saturday Night Live — it has managed to spread all over the world.

The good(?) news is that Sheeran’s music may be in the endemic phase at this point. We as a society have learned to live with it. Getting all worked up about him feels like a waste of energy. Sheeran is an unavoidable fact of life, a part of the atmosphere. In an industry filled with villains, he at least seems like he isn’t a creep or a poor sport about critics like me roasting him at every opportunity (though a slew of lawsuits suggest he may be a plagiarist, which would complicate that nice-guy image). Furthermore, Sheeran’s new album = (equals), released last Friday, is the first that does not introduce significant new variants into the population — or at least the variants are now innocuous genre exercises that no longer have me putting my forehead in my hands the way his rapping exploits often have. He may have achieved his final form, and that form is neither exhilarating nor especially offensive.

When Sheeran released No.6 Collaborations Project two years ago, I joked that the famously analytics-obsessed musical opportunist had finally become one with the algorithm. But the album really was an endpoint for him in the sense that nothing on it felt surprising or out-of-place for Sheeran. He’d already made hip-hop songs, dabbled in various forms of electronic pop, and teamed up with all kinds of superstar musicians. His musical universe is fairly vast at this point, but it’s also become pretty predictable, to the point that when I tell you = sounds like an Ed Sheeran album, you should clearly understand what that means: He’s the earnest singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar who adapts his songs to all kinds of pop-radio templates without ever really leaving the middle of the road.

The main difference on = is that Sheeran has happily settled down. There are songs on the album about other subjects, like “Visiting Hours,” a ballad about grieving, and “Bad Habits,” a dark-tinted lite electronic excursion about partying too hard. Most of the songs, though, are about his young marriage to Cherry Seaborn and the arrival of their daughter, Lyra. It’s an album in that blissed-out Golden Hour mode, albeit without the faint glow and aesthetic consistency that defined Golden Hour. In fact, switching up his style from song to song has sort of become Sheeran’s thing. Working closely with Snow Patrol’s Johnny McDaid and the UK music-biz pro Fred, both of whom cowrote and co-produced almost every track, Sheeran shows he doesn’t need a big list of featured artists to spin the wheel of musical styles.

Thus, we hear about his adoration for Seaborn in ballads like the sparse “First Times” and the the more self-consciously grandiose “Love In Slow Motion” but also the Latin-tinged, hip-hop-infused “2step,” the new-wave-esque “Overpass Graffiti,” the warm electro-AOR of “Collide,” the fervently oscillating “Be Right Now,” the driving rocker “Tides,” and the smooth, brassy “Shivers,” his latest reunion with “Shape Of You” co-conspirator Steve Mac. Maybe it’s because I’m now inoculated to Sheeran, or because he’s working with a palette of ’80s and ’90s sounds that remind me of the 1975 (who I adore), but most of these songs strike me less as obnoxious affronts to good taste and more like well-executed radio filler that isn’t going to affect my day for the worse or the better. Some of the production is impressively textured and dynamic. The melodies are often fluid and appealing. I’d be curious to hear some of these songs with someone less fearlessly mawkish on lead vocals.

With that in mind, Sheeran is still Sheeran. On =, he is at his most grating at his most sentimental. His lullaby for his daughter, “Sandman,” is cutesy in a way that makes me flinch. The whimpering love song “The Joker And The Queen” is insufferably treacly. No matter how much he experiments, he ends up sounding generic. But for the most part the album is fine — nothing to get too worked up about either way. Considering my previous stance on Ed Sheeran, I guess that counts as a ringing endorsement, but please don’t take it that way. It’s just that hating on this guy no longer feels worth it. Unlike actual diseases, you don’t have to fight the good fight against music this blandly competent. You can just shrug and move on to something truly inspired.

CHART WATCH

Adele rules Billboard‘s Hot 100 for a second straight week with “Easy On Me.” It’s followed by former chart-toppers from the Kid Laroi and Justin Bieber (“Stay,” #2) and Lil Nas X and Jack Harlow (“Industry Baby,” #3). Walker Hayes remains at #4 with “Fancy Like.” Ed Sheeran’s “Bad Habits” at #5 and “Shivers” at a new #7 peak sandwich Drake, Future, and Young Thug’s “Way 2 Sexy” at #6. After Olivia Rodrigo’s “good 4 u” at #8 comes a new #9 high point for Doja Cat’s “Need To Know,” which becomes her third top-10 hit following “Say So” and “Kiss Me More.” Dua Lipa’s “Levitating” rounds out the top 10.

Drake’s Certified Lover Boy, which seems to top the Billboard 200 by default when there’s no big-splash album debut, is indeed once again back at #1 this week for a fifth nonconsecutive frame. According to Billboard the album tallied 74,000 equivalent album units, almost entirely via streaming. More top-10 mainstays follow him: Morgan Wallen at #2, Doja Cat at #3, YoungBoy Never Broke Again at #4, and Olivia Rodrigo at #5. After Moneybagg Yo at #6 and Young Thug at #7 comes a #8 debut for Lana Del Rey’s Blue Banisters with 33,000 units and 19,000 in sales — her eighth top-10 album and second this year following the #2-peaking Chemtrails Over The Country Club. Lil Nas X is at #9, and his pal Elton John rounds out the top 10 with a #10 debut for The Lockdown Sessions. The album moved 29,000 units including 17,000 in sales, good for John’s 21st top-10 album.

POP FIVE

Myke Towers, Camila Cabello, & Tainy – “Oh Na Na”
Cabello’s latest singles haven’t been tearing up the charts, but they’ve been so much more vibrant than most of her last album.

Conan Gray – “Telepath”
Conan Gray lending his high-pitched pipes to this kind of gleefully chintzy uptempo synth-pop makes too much sense. I love this.

grandson – “Drop Dead” (Feat. Kesha & Travis Barker)
Imagine Twenty One Pilots channeling “Where Is My Mind,” but with a defiantly rebellious posture about living a life of sin. If that’s something you’d like to hear, listen to this.

BENEE – “Doesn’t Matter”
Not the worst Billie Eilish impression I’ve ever heard.

Imagine Dragons & J.I.D – “Enemy”
J.I.D’s drive to imitate Kendrick Lamar truly knows no bounds.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • DaBaby returned to the Rolling Loud stage as a guest of 50 Cent. [TMZ]
  • Ariana Grande and Childish Gambino are reportedly on the upcoming Silk Sonic album. [Reddit]
  • Ed Sheeran says Elton John calls him every day. [NZ Herald]
  • Sheeran also played a Tiny Desk Concert. [YouTube]
  • Zedd mashed up Squid Game‘s “Pink Soldiers” song with ACRAZE’s “Do It To It.” [YouTube]
  • Big Sean says he left Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music: “I had to start getting a bigger cut!” [Twitter]
  • According to newly unsealed court documents, Dr. Luke claims that Kesha’s allegations against him cost him $46 million in lost business opportunities. [Rolling Stone]
  • Måneskin did “Beggin'” on The Tonight Show and I can’t believe none of their fans have tweeted it at me yet. [YouTube]
  • Olivia Rodrigo told Jimmy Kimmel that President Biden gifted her a shoehorn. [YouTube]
  • Rodrigo also leads the 2021 American Music Awards nominations with seven. [GMA]
  • Jungkook from BTS covered Harry Styles’ “Falling.” [YouTube]
  • The Kid LAROI did “Stay” on Kimmel. [YouTube]
  • Luke Bryan pulled over and fixed the flat tire of a woman who got stranded in Middle Tennessee. [Fox 17]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME

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