Following a year long break from social media, Ed Sheeran is back with a bang. Releasing two singles on one day in February – Castle On The Hill and Shape Of You – it’s clear to see that his sound is better than ever. On March 3rd he released third studio album, ÷. Here’s what we thought.
Track opener Eraser bursts into life with a staccato-sounding acoustic guitar. The quick stroke strums are sharp, stinging, stabbing, and layered on top of the pounding drumbeat it sounds harsh. Harsh, but not messy. Layered, but seamless. It’s an assault of the senses in the best way. It’s the perfect introduction for the record.
Singles, Castle On The Hill and Shape Of You, are so overplayed you feel like you’ve known them for years; but you won’t get sick of them. Both tracks are upbeat, with defined rhythm, but Shape Of You takes a more exotic form. It wouldn’t be out of place if it were played on a marimba, and mixed with the plucky tones of guitar, the song takes on a three-dimensional form. Castle On The Hill, on the other hand, is just as punchy – but it’s softer, more like a pop song. The highlight of the song is Sheeran’s voice: he’s more confident than ever, and it’s laced with roughness like it’s never been before. His striking falsetto only serves to emphasise his talent.
Slower tracks like Perfect and How Would You Feel (Paean) fall flat in the middle of the album. Despite their chart popularity, Sheeran’s soft love songs don’t quite hit the mark like the upbeat album – they fall on the wrong side of cliché and sound just a bit like every other ballad out there. The only good things about these tracks are Sheeran’s vocals. They may be unimaginative songs, but at the very least, he sings it like he means it.
What Do I Know? sounds soft and innocent, kind of like an audio version of the blanket you loved when you were a kid. It’s unassuming, harmless, with the right amount of complexity. It’s neither dull nor eccentric – it just is. The guitar riff provides the perfect gentle backdrop, and the harmonies in the chorus are subtle but they make the song. The lyrics reflect this, too: “You know, the future’s in the hands of you and me/so let’s all get together, we can all be free/spread love and understanding, positivity” This song sounds like sitting in the park with your friends. It sounds like warm sunshine on your face, your sun-bleached hair in August, the scratchy blades of grass against your bare legs.
The standout tracks on ÷ are easily Galway Girl and Nancy Mulligan. Both songs are heavily influenced by traditional Irish music – and combing this with pop music shouldn’t work but it’s honestly brilliant. Galway Girl’s lyrics tell a story: about a boy meeting a girl in a bar (“I met her on Grafton street/right outside of the bar”), the pair having a drink (with so many references to whiskey) and just enjoying a night together. The narrative is great, the imagery is better, and Sheeran’s song writing skills shine.
Nancy Mulligan on the other hand, is a true story – it details Sheeran’s grandparents’ sixty-year long love story. This song has the heaviest Irish influence, and it makes the song all that more authentic. With seamless violins and punchy clapping, you can almost see the river dancers in front of your eyes. “I don’t think enough people use [Irish music] in pop music,” Sheeran said. “For some reason it’s considered twee and old, but it’s such exciting, youthful music, it should be at the forefront of pop culture.” And from listening to these two tracks, I’m inclined to agree.
But Nancy Mulligan isn’t the only song that Sheeran referenced his grandmother for. The delicate tones of Supermarket Flowers detail the loss of the singer’s beloved Nan who passed during the recording of ÷. The song’s nothing less than a tribute, and a fitting one at that. The track opens with the delicate plucking of a piano, and Sheeran lowers his voice to a gentle croon. It’s the lyrics that really hit home, though: phrases like “I’m in pieces, it’s tearing me up but I know/A heard that’s broke is a heart that’s been loved” show the honest side of losing a loved one. It’s a song about trying to find comfort in the hard times, and the emotion in Sheeran’s voice is clearly not faked.
Album closer, Save Myself, is possibly the best of Sheeran’s acoustic collection – it’s seamless, gentle and raw, with more use of a piano. The vocals are flawless, with the perfect inflections to match the music and a tone of angst that fits the lyrics perfectly. It’s the best way to end an album – it winds you down nicely, prepares you for the inevitable end and leaves you the exact opposite of disappointed.
Even though the album has ended, though, I bet it won’t be long until you’re pressing replay. It’s clear that Ed Sheeran has matured – but instead of becoming boring, he’s more experimental than ever. There’s no bad tracks on ÷ – some of the love songs are dull, sure, rehashed, maybe, but the upbeat songs more than make up for it. It’s easy to see where Sheeran excels – and hopefully, the next album will be entirely made up of lyrical imagery and Irish influences. After all, it is where his roots lie.
Words by Lucy Wenham