Sheerios rise: Ed Sheeran returns with ‘=’
Abigail Keaney | Tuesday, November 9, 2021
After a four-year hiatus, the music industry’s most popular ginger is back with “=.” Ed Sheeran, whose debut album “+” was released a decade ago this year, has returned with an eclectic collection of songs to close out the year and cement his position as everyone’s favorite musician to hate.
In reviewing this album, we must first ask ourselves who Ed Sheeran writes for. Compared to other artists of a similar magnitude, Sheeran seems to lack a solid core fanbase. Case in point: while we’ve all nodded along to “The A Team,” I challenge you to find anyone who owns Ed Sheeran merch. Sheerios, as Sheeran fans are named, are few and far between. Ed Sheeran writes not for the fan, but for the indifferent listener. “=,” then, becomes an album which might not be his greatest work, but it is certainly something you’d enjoy listening to on the radio of your mom’s minivan on the way home for Thanksgiving.
“=” kicks off with “Tides,” a strong opener reminiscent of his 2017 single “Castle on The Hill.” Beginning with the lyric “I have grown up and am a father now,” Sheeran sets the tone for the rest of the album. Themes of new fatherhood reappear throughout in songs like “Visiting Hours” (essentially the sequel to “Supermarket Flowers”) and “Sandman.” Slow and accompanied by unpolished vocals, these tracks are Sheeran at his best. On this album, it becomes clear that his talent lies in being authentic and personal while remaining broadly relatable. For example, “First Times” references Sheeran’s first performance at Wembley Stadium, and while most of us haven’t sung for a crowd of 80,000 people, every listener can relate to the simplicity of the pre-chorus, which talks about how “the simplest things in life can make a man / little moments that pass us by.” Sheeran takes his own experiences and applies them to sweeping statements about life, cementing his appeal to an fanbase encompassing both retirees and pre-teens.
The best songs on “=,” then, are those which are distinctly Ed Sheeran. When Sheeran the father and husband writes about being a father and husband, his music is enjoyable and meaningful. While the content of his songs may have changed since his debut a decade ago, Sheeran’s honest songwriting continues to draw listeners in much the same way as it did on early tracks like “U.N.I” and “Cold Coffee” (a gem from Sheeran’s little known 2010 EP “Songs I Wrote With Amy”). Furthermore, his relationship with his now-wife Cherry Seaborn dominates his songwriting with tracks like “Collide” and “2step.” “2step” is a particular highlight as one of the few songs on the album which retains Sheeran’s trademark blend of fast paced lyricism and acoustic guitar.
That being said, “=” falters when Sheeran’s authenticity comes into question. For example, while a song like “Bad Habits” isn’t objectively bad (and is even a little catchy), it could have been written by anyone. This detached, even soulless, style drags the album down, because it doesn’t seem like it’s written by Ed Sheeran at all. As a husband and father in his thirties, Sheeran’s confession that his “bad habits lead to late nights endin’ alone / conversations with a stranger I barely know” seems less fun and flirtatious and more of an indictment on his marriage. That’s not to say that songwriting can’t be hypothetical, but the album begins to lack cohesion when Sheeran sings about his new baby before immediately following up with a song about a breakup that he’ll never forget (“Overpass Graffiti”). On “=,” Sheeran seems to forget that he’s writing an album rather than producing a disparate collection of singles, resulting in a scattered record that lacks a clear storyline.
“=” is an enjoyable album with some solid songs. At the same time, though, it lacks the genuine personality of some of Sheeran’s previous work. When you have the kind of back catalogue that Sheeran does, it’s hard to measure up. Some listeners might enjoy his shift to pop-music proper, but long-term fans (all three of us) will find themselves missing the simplicity and authenticity of his earlier work.
Artist: Ed Sheeran
Label: Asylum Records UK
Favorite tracks: “Visiting Hours,” “First Times,” Tides
If you like: Shawn Mendes, Charlie Puth, Lewis Capaldi
Shamrocks: 3 out of 5