If there’s one thing we know British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran is good at, it’s spinning yarns about sowing wild oats. Sheeran’s debut album “+” came out ten years ago in September and was met with positive critical response. Some may have first heard of “+” through other One Direction fans on the internet during that Neo-British-Invasion phase of the early 2010s, or maybe their lasting impression of “+” comes from “The A Team” auto-playing every time they turn their car on. Regardless of how annoying those first chords of “The A Team” become after being unwillingly subjected to them countless times, “+” set the bar for Sheeran’s songwriting and musicianship from there on out. His 2014 sophomore album “x” put a toe outside the singer-songwriter/folk/acoustic hip-hop sound he had cultivated in “+,” and veered more towards the dance/folk-pop Ed we know today. Though much more vast in scale than “+,” “x” maintains the intimate and personal feel fans fell in love with and is, I think, his best album. Even in Portland, Oregon’s Moda Center in 2015 performing to 20,000 people, the singular man on stage with a guitar and a loop pedal made the music feel as up close and personal as a no-cover show at a dive club.
Over the years, the aforementioned oats have become decidedly less wild, and with the oats went the intimate and personal feel. Sheeran no longer lives on friends’ couches and seems to be happily married with a child. This sort of lifestyle typically results in less interesting music, but good for him for being happy, I guess (ha). 2017’s “÷” arrived to much anticipation from fans, but its scale and production made it feel far less “from the heart,” you could say, and perhaps even less memorable. To be honest, I couldn’t even hum the melody of any track on “÷,” save “Nancy Mulligan,” which inexplicably makes me want to cry any time I hear it. I suppose it can’t be that bad, however, since “÷” was the worldwide best selling album of 2017. Somewhere in between 2017 and now, there was that strange collab album “No. 6 Collaborations Project,” to which I’m not convinced anyone actually listened.
Which brings us to now: Ed Sheeran’s fifth studio album “=.” It seems to be a trend this year for established artists to release uncharacteristically underproduced records. Lorde’s “Solar Power” was criticized for being a bit thin, as was Kasey Musgraves’ “star crossed.” Based on my preliminary listens, it’s safe to say “=” can be added to the list. Gone are the rhythmically interesting percussion, the engaging solo acoustic guitar and the masterfully written lyrics. Songs on “=” blend together in a haze of generic dance pop, and when they don’t it’s not really a good thing. The most classically Ed Sheeran track is “First Times,” which, while sweet, stands apart from the rest of the pop driven record in its quiet acoustic-ness, sticking out like a sore thumb.
“Sandman” is the longest track on the record, and also the most boring. A story about watching his baby daughter sleep, the length and on-the-nose lyrics make it an instant skip. The better tracks are “Shivers” and “2step,” but even those don’t quite make a lasting impression. If you’re a fan of Sheeran’s recent work, you’ll probably like “=” just fine too, but if you like his early work best, then this one probably isn’t for you.