Third album by Suffolk’s favourite son has its moments, and feels like he’s more confident and energised than ever before, but ultimately ends up falling a bit short
It’s been a long old three years since that ginger acoustic-guitar-and-loop-pedal wielding Ed Sheeran launched the campaign for second album ‘x’ – or, ‘Multiply’. His phenonemal success during that album campaign made him so omniprescent in pop culture that the 12 month ‘break’ we had from him – he disappeared from social media for exactly a year, returning in December at the very second marking the anniversary of his disappearance, and avoided any interviews and public appearances through that time frame, save for the occasional awards ceremony speech – felt like no break at all. Nevertheless, however, he did go away for long enough to make an album that could take on the unenviable task of succeeding ‘Multiply’ and its gargantuan sales, and thus here we have ‘÷’ – or, ‘Divide’.
Right from the start of opening track ‘Eraser’, Sheeran’s sound feels not just fresh but bigger and more expansive, the production by Snow Patrol’s Johnny McDaid far surpassing anything the Suffolk singer-songwriter has put out before, to accompany the most personal few verses he has ever recorded too. It’s an instant earworm and by a distance the best thing here, although the sense of ‘made for stadiums’ is at least sustained for a few more songs, including ‘Castle On The Hill’, a gloriously expansive anthem that feels tailor-made to be blasted into every corner of Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage auditorium, which is convinient given Mr Sheeran will be headlining that very stage in a few months time. From the very moment it was released back in January, ‘Castle On The Hill’ felt as perfect a vibrant, building, thrilling album opener as ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ (or Taylor Swift’s ‘State of Grace’, more recently), and so a few eyebrows were raised by this observer when the track list was revealed without that as the opener, but in the end it works perfectly nicely. The opening double-salvo of ‘Divide’ grab you by the throat with their raw, emotional, anthemic power.
Continuing on after ‘Castle on the Hill’ – if we ignore the other early single, ‘Shape Of You’, which sadly arrives here in its original form, rather than in the considerably more dynamic and exciting newer version featuring Stormy – we encounter a double-header of classic Sheeran ballads. In the build-up to the release of ‘Divide’, Ed has talked up ‘Perfect’ as ‘an even better version of [global smash hit from ‘x’] ‘Thinking Out Loud’, but in the end both ‘Perfect’ and ‘Dive’ can be considered to be ‘Thinking Out Loud’ dialled up to 100 – the former even featuring a backing choir and gospel organ. Then we have another change of pace, with the midway point of the record finding the fantastic ‘Galway Girl’. It isn’t quite such a dramatic departure from his usual sound as to back up the talk of his label supposedly trying to force him to take it off the tracklisting, but never the less it’s a brilliantly fun little jig that will doubtless find itself blared out from every Irish pub in the land for the foreseeable future.
Sadly, however, things rather drop off after that. The second half of the standard edition, with a couple of exceptions, is a run of drippy ballad after drippy ballad, with ‘Happier’ in particular being about as memorable as the very most forgettable songs on the last few Madonna records – the fact it is been regularly compared to songs by Eric Clapton should tell you a lot. Similarly, instant-grat single ‘How Would You Feel (Paean)’ still feels no more interesting than a meal of soggy fish fingers in the context of the full album. ‘New Man’ and ‘What Do I Know’ wake things up a bit, but not really enough, and things are made to look especially unfortunate when the standard edition of the album runs its course and we come to the four bonus tracks – ‘Barcelona’, ‘Bibia Be Ye Ye’ and ‘Nancy Mulligan’ are all three a million miles better than anything on the standard edition after ‘Galway Girl’, not least because they sound like they were a lot more fun to record. But, having said that, even the quieter, forgettable moments are at least enjoyable for their production values – at its worst, on songs like ‘Photograph’, the predecessor to ‘Divide’ sounded like the singer wasn’t enjoying writing and recording it, and already-weak songs bordered on unlistenable for it, but none of that is repeated here. Everything feels properly polished, thought-out and loved.
It’s a great pity this third album by Mr Sheeran has a relatively dud second half, because if it was comprised purely of the opening sextet, ‘New Man’, ‘What Do I Know’ and the bonus tracks, it’d be the colossus his career needed in order to progress on to the next level. As it is ‘Divide’ will probably see Sheeran stay in the Taylor Swift league of popularity rather than budge into Adele’s territory, although in fairness who wouldn’t settle for that anyway.
Best songs: Eraser
Worth a listen: Castle on the Hill, Perfect, Galway Girl, What Do I Know, Barcelona, Bibia Be Ye Ye, Nancy Mulligan
Advisable to skip: Shape of You (unless you substitute in the Stormzy version), Happier, How Would You Feel (Paean)