Ed Sheeran has nailed the formula for a platinum-selling record. Simply mix inoffensive ballads with upbeat pop tunes, then season with a splash of anything new to stimulate development — in this example, synth-pop. “=” is designed to please as many people as possible, much like the previous entries in the superstar’s arithmetic operator series. And this isn’t always a terrible thing. Sheeran is a master of the infectious chorus, and the stripped-down moments are just real enough to tug at your heartstrings.
But first, let’s talk about the new ingredient: Ed Sheeran’s increasing love of the banger, which “=” delivers to the party. Sheeran demonstrated his ability to orchestrate synthesizers as well as playing an acoustic guitar with “Bad Habits.” The album’s huge single “Shape of You,” which has been streamed more than 600 million times on Spotify alone, is a song so pervasive that it’s hard to ignore it. The 30-year-old then followed it up with an even better single, “Shivers.”
“Overpass Graffiti” is a close second to that tune as the album’s slickest, most immediate pop offering. This song is a thematic outlier since it recalls a breakup among the numerous protestations of love to Sheeran’s wife and newborn daughter. “Collide” and “Be Right Now” are two other up-tempo tunes worth noting. Sheeran sings sweet nothings over dream-house music worthy of Robert Miles on the first, while the second is the club equivalent of an inspirational phrase drowned in soothing synthesizers on the second.
Although the U.K. singer has shown to be a quick scholar in cheerful dance-pop, the album’s heart remains its mix of semi-acoustic songs. “=” is curiously devoid of a timeless ballad, given Sheeran’s penchant for writing wedding songs like “Thinking Out Loud” and “Perfect.” “First Times” is probably the closest match. This is the most general of all the songs dedicated to his wife, with Sheeran looking forward to all of the firsts that the couple would experience in the future. This is either a wonderfully romantic or a coma-inducing sugar bomb, depending on your mood. The muted production toned down the sugary subject matter significantly.
“Sandman,” a sweet song dedicated to Sheeran’s newborn baby, is another gem among the half-dozen or so calmer moments. While many of the ballads sound similar, this one feels refreshingly distinct, conveying a genuine and emotional moment. Sheeran imagines presenting his child to his mentor in paradise in “Visiting Hours,” a homage to late Australian music executive Michael Gudinski.
“=” devolves into Hallmark card territory at its worst. “The Joker and the Queen” feels like a rushed homage to “+,” while “Love in Slow Motion” sounds tailor-made for elevators and doctor’s offices. There are some songs that are best described as lighthearted filler. “Leave Your Life” is aggressively boring, while “Stop the Rain” falls flat. This is the type of song that is more interested in clichés than actual insight into the human condition. The pleasant grime of “2step” is similarly throwaway, requiring you to suspend disbelief long enough to swallow Sheeran and his woman tearing up the dance floor every weekend.
In the end, you’ll know whether or not you’ll enjoy “=.” You’re in for a treat if Sheeran’s past albums elicited genuine emotional responses. If not, this isn’t going to persuade you otherwise. However, you can’t help but believe that Sheeran, a great melody-maker, still has something special up his sleeve.