After three years without new music and a self-imposed social media hiatus, Ed Sheeran finally released his newest album, Divide (÷), on March 3. New listeners and devoted fans alike will find the exceptional guitar skills and raw vocals that have solidified Sheeran’s popularity in full supply on this new album, but they can also expect to witness Sheeran’s notable evolution into different musical styles.
The English songwriter tempted fans with the idea of a more experimental album when he released the reggae and dancehall-influenced “Shape of You” in January. Although Sheeran has released danceable tracks before like “Sing” on his previous album, X, “Shape of You” marks a distinct leap outside of traditional pop-rock borders.
The rest of the album continues to travel south of England with songs like “Barcelona” that liberate listeners by creating soundtracks for light-hearted and playful travel. This track substitutes traditional percussion for layers of Sheeran’s own beatboxing and throws in an irresistible acoustic guitar riff.
After he visited Ghana, Sheeran also wrote the equally bouncy and rhythmic “Bibia Be Ye Ye” which translates to “everything will be alright.” Sheeran even forgoes some of his English lyrics to sing in different languages for both of these tracks.
Despite their refreshing sonic experiments, these two upbeat tracks also feel superficial and cursory, as Sheeran sacrifices the opportunity to really explore these cultures.
For example, “Barcelona” disregards and subsequently adds to the city’s current and contentious problem of excessive tourism. Throwing salt in the wound, Sheeran also decides to sing in Spanish despite the fact that Barcelona prides itself on its Catalan language and history.
Although these exotic sounding tracks show some musical expansion, Divide also simultaneously anchors Sheeran in his own heritage. The album opens on an autobiographical and defiant note with “Eraser.” The song includes Sheeran’s signature beatbox and acoustic rap performance with a grittier tone, as he reflects on his disenchanted perspective on fame.
“Castle on the Hill,” the album’s other single, also feels genuinely retrospective and nostalgic. Although the uniquely specific moments mentioned in this song that only relate to Sheeran’s own life can alienate some listeners, “Castle on the Hill” serves as a perfect song for anyone to play celebrating a momentous homecoming.
Sheeran also stays close to home by exploring Irish sounds like on the folksy, bold and irresistibly catchy “Galway Girl.” The album’s other Irish-inspired track, “Nancy Mulligan,” sounds like it could be sung in any rowdy pub and even takes inspiration from Sheeran’s own life.
In an interview with Irish Times, Sheeran explained that this track recounts the romance surrounding his grandparent’s controversial Catholic-Protestant relationship.
Although Divide shows Sheeran both evolving into international music genres and exploring his roots, the album fails to expand the singer’s proven songwriting talents. In fact, like Sheeran’s previous album titles (+ and X) the lyrics become formulaic.
Despite earning enough constant radio airtime to kill any generic pop song let alone a well written track, 2014’s “Thinking Out Loud” showcased Sheeran’s ability to write a timeless song that, if it isn’t already, will play at weddings for years to come.
Comparing this hit with the lyrics in Divide’s “New Man,” Sheeran forgoes enduring lyrics to focus on the idiosyncrasies of romance in the confusing social media age. Sheeran repeats the same themes that appear on his previous tracks like “Don’t,” but with even more of a superficial focus. He gives too much attention to trivial problems like when he sings about Instagram stalking.
“I’ll be trying not to double tap from way back cause I know that’s where the trouble’s at,” Sheeran sings in “New Man.”
Although relatable to his modern audience, it’s confusing and almost frustrating that Sheeran chooses to focus on the more inconsequential areas of relationships when he has already proven that can write about more complex and compelling emotions.
Even when Sheeran does try to add lyrical depth, it feels like he falls into the same love-song formula. Although his vocals surge with emotion, “Happier” feels too direct and obvious with its lyrics. Similarly, “What Do I Know?” resists the urge to go for more serious topics. Instead, its message that “love can change the world in a moment” comes across as a feel-good cliché.
Despite these lyrics falling flat, there are certain moments on this album when Sheeran does manage to capture more nuanced emotions like in the simultaneously somber and hopeful “Supermarket Flowers.”
“A heart that’s broke is a heart that’s been loved,” Sheeran sings.
Sheeran also warrants further comparison to Van Morrison in the laid-back yet longing sounding “How Would You Feel (Paean).”
Highlighting powerful, gruff and unenhanced vocals, “Dive” shows Sheeran’s voice at its absolute best. Only accompanied by a simple rhythmic guitar, this track’s vocals are so strong that when compared to the others, this song overshadows most of the vocals on Divide.
As a whole, it’s also important to mention that Sheeran’s album demonstrates a masterful balance between electric and acoustic guitar with an overall high quality sound production.
While Divide, like most pop albums, has its superficial flaws, Sheeran proves again that he has more to offer as he continues to develop his sound as an original singer-songwriter.