Ed Sheeran Keeps It Catchy and Sappy on ‘=’

In retrospect, Ed Sheeran’s 2011 debut album, “+,” seems to have been appropriately titled. Since the beginning, his music career has been a story full of positive gains that defied logic. By 2017, this unassuming redhead with a guitar had become the world’s best-selling musician. His songwriting carried an elusive, universal appeal that resonated with the most disparate genres. The title of his most celebrated album, “÷,” was also fitting, as he had somehow broken music down beyond its superficial divisions, and arrived at a core essence that struck a chord worldwide. Now, Sheeran is 30 years old, and married with a child, with a new album that endeavors to make sense of his life and responsibilities. In a stage of life that calls for stability and moderating force, it’s all too perfect that Sheeran’s latest record is titled “=.”  

Opener “Tides” is a stomper full of muscular, ringing guitars, seeming to rise naturally from the pressures of Sheeran’s new adult iife, and capturing him with a candid rawness that we aren’t used to, as he cries out, “I have grown up, I am a father now.” Eventually, he stops for an overdue breather, and marvels, “Timе stops to still,” as vocoder creeps in during the pause. After a fleeting, fanciful moment, Sheeran declares, “Life is changin’ tides,” sounding modestly triumphant as the music surges back. One track further in, he has expelled his demons and adjusted his voice to fit a wide eyed, gushy persona on the single “Shivers.” His gushing goes a bit far, with lines like “I wanna kiss your eyes / I wanna drink that smile,” but he presents it with such an agreeable voice and perfect pop instinct that one can hardly take issue. Propulsive guitars and a handclap-heavy beat ring in a punchy chorus that effectively captures the lingering spirit of youthful, amorous enthusiasm that Sheeran channels in this song. 

In a flash, Sheeran reverts to more standard singer-songwriter fare on “First Times,” a  sound more consistent with the sounds of his early material. The words Sheeran sings and the voice in which he sings them follow a winning formula of gimmickless simplicity, and bare vulnerability, with Hallmark zingers like “I can’t wait to make a million more first times.” Then, it’s back to polished posturing, but without Sheeran ever coming across as slick or forced. Possibly Sheeran’s most overtly dancy song yet, “Bad Habits” is an infectious single. Sheeran goes so far as to let out little gasps for breath, almost like an extremely understated Michael Jackson, as he sings about the struggle to cast off unhealthy habits now that he is a father. The energy of the song flows into “Overpass Graffiti,” a committed ‘80s excursion. By this point in the album, champions of the “suffering is art” ideology will likely grow uncomfortable, as this new 30-year-old Sheeran is simply too much fun to not appreciate, as is the throwaway poetry of lyrics like “Well, I will always love you for what it’s worth / We’ll never fade like graffiti on the overpass.”

Sadly, things take an insufferable turn on “The Joker and the Queen,” the type of track that people who don’t listen to music unless it happens to be played in their vicinity will think is the sweetest song in the world. It’s full Disney fare, building up to the climactic, titular line over a melody that resolves like clockwork in a way that seems to mock you. Sheeran is such a master at crafting pop songs that it’s surprising he ever resorts to such practices. Fortunately, there is only one other track on the album that suffers from similar designs, or lack thereof. “Visiting Hours” “begins with the lyrics, “I wish that heaven / Had visiting hours,” and fleshes out fittingly. The music drops out, and Sheeran lets out a tasteful touch of falsetto as he ties the chorus together with an emotional final line. The bland predictability can be painful, although on this one, Sheeran conveys enough emotion in his singing to make it palatable.   

A song like “Leave Your Life,” while uncompromisingly both poppy and pure at heart, has enough edge about it to engage listeners. Sheeran pauses to reflect, and finally declares, “I’m never gonna leave your life,” whereupon the loosely swiveling instrumentation around him locks into place, switching on the full, concerted musical apparatus. Of course, this is all quite trite and mawkish, but its worlds more dimensional than “The Joker and the Queen.” Single “Collide” is another track that pushes the limits with its saccharine gall, especially the  “Heya-hey” backing vocals that Sheeran bellows so blissfully in the chorus. On the other hand, it’s understandable that an artist like Sheeran, whose every song could be a successful single, might find himself overreaching with antics like this to designate the chosen singles as such.  

“2step” is a sure standout. It starts like another standard singer-songwriter number, until almost-trap hi hats enter, and Sheeran keeps pace, singing in rapid triplets, taking a cue from the rappers of 2021. It’s a move that could easily sound desperate, comical, and cringey, but Sheeran manages it brilliantly. It shouldn’t be all that surprising, as he has famously incorporated rapping into his songs over the years, and this is far more subtle than that. Still, it makes an impression, and the song takes off from there, building to a refrain of “Two-stepping with the woman I love,” which reminds us that Sheeran has a sense of humor.  

The beaming vocals and punchy chorus of “Stop the Rain” are power pop in the literal sense. Sheeran lets out growls that extend into fluid, forceful projections, and manages to never sound sanctimonious, even as gospel choirs chime in. Another standout is “Sandman,” a song Sheeran wrote for his daughter before she was even born. It’s a fully committed children’s song, with lyrics about “marshmallow books and strawberries” and “snowmen made of ice cream,” which can be a profoundly unflattering undertaking for a respected singer — just listen to John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy.)” Luckily, Sheeran sounds endearing without resorting to cooing, and the song captures the genuinely winsome personality behind the music. 

“=” is an album that finds Sheeran teasing wildly varied musical directions with the versatility he has famously demonstrated throughout his career. For all the liberties it takes with its sounds and stylings, it’s also a strikingly cohesive album thematically. This comes out especially upon the final track, “Be Right Now,” as an insistent kick drum pulse marks a decisive return to relative grounding after so many whimsical detours. The music is darker, just enough to convey a certain reflective sobriety, and the finish of the tones is still bright and playful, Sheeran’s voice is lucid and light, floating freely above the music that plods on, The album that kicked off with the angsty unease of “Tides” winds down with an empowering surrender, as Sheeran reflects, “There’s nothing but the space we’re in / The hurry and the noise shut out / Just stay here and be right now.” 

=” releases Oct. 29 on Apple Music.