Arts and Entertainment

Authentically Ed, and How “=” Was Not.

While Sheeran’s vocal and instrumental talent, along with his signature authenticity, is present in certain songs on “=,” the album as a whole felt weak, disorganized, and unfinished.

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By Ying Chen

Ed Sheeran is writing an equation for his life.

With the release of his latest album, “=,” Sheeran now has four albums named after mathematical operators: “+” (2011), “x” (2013), “÷” (2017), and now “=.” Sheeran has dubbed “=” his “coming of age” album and his proudest work yet. For many, Sheeran’s analysis matches up with their opinion of the album. But for others, it was overwhelmingly underwhelming, especially considering Sheeran’s track record to date.

Sheeran has been a major player in the music industry for quite some time: his first album, “+,” kicked off the slew of math-themed album titles. Since then, Sheeran has won two Grammy Awards for Song of the Year in “Shape of You” and “Thinking Out Loud,” and one Grammy for Best Pop Album (“÷”).

For the past 10 years, however, Sheeran has made a name for himself not just through his accolades or mathematical titles, but rather his ability to use his voice and guitar to connect with audiences. Sheeran stands out in the industry because of the way his lyrics resonate with listeners and artists alike, proven in his being named the UK’s “artist of the decade.

In December 2019, Sheeran announced he was taking some time off in anticipation of the birth of his child, Lyra Sheeran. So the sudden release of the singles “Bad Habits” and “Visiting Hours” just over a year and a half later (shorter than Sheeran’s previous hiatus in 2015), followed by the announcement of his new album, came as a surprise for diehard fans and casual listeners alike.

When “Visiting Hours” was released, detailing Sheeran’s relationship with the late Michael Gudinski, Sheeran explained that the album would be about “love, loss, new life, grief, and everything in between.” “Visiting Hours” provided an early glimpse into the side of the album that was reminiscent of Sheeran’s gentle yet powerful music style, while indicating that the album would feature songs about his daughter, particularly his love and admiration for her.

Each of the album’s best songs showcase a particular aspect of Sheeran’s life and his music. “Sandman” displays Sheeran’s authenticity, the trait that has made him so popular and his music so appealing. The song juxtaposes gentle yet emotional vocals with lullaby-like, instrumental melodies and evokes a sense of serenity in listeners. “Leave Your Life,” an amalgamation of pop and R&B, explores Sheeran’s relationship with his daughter, Lyra, in a more upbeat, yet still authentic light. “Collide,” one of the album’s best songs, features a more robust production than others, but is no less a display of Sheeran’s talents. Sheeran’s vocals thrive paired alongside an lively, dance-pop rhythm with energetic music, intertwining his two muses together, conveying his admiration for both his wife and his child.

These songs all feature a raw authenticity, exactly what Sheeran is known for. They are all relatively untouched and not overproduced, in contrast to the less appealing songs on the album, which tend to feature more production and less focus on Sheeran’s acoustic stylings.

The album’s hit songs were very clearly pushed by Sheeran’s label, carefully composed to climb the charts. Since its release in June 2021, the lead single “Bad Habits” has garnered over 650 million streams on Spotify alone. However, the song, along with fellow early release “Shivers,” is not at all within Sheeran’s area of expertise. Both songs are very clearly overproduced, with unnecessarily digitized instruments. “Bad Habits,” a synth-driven dance song, is a clear departure from Sheeran’s usual acoustic, stripped-down style, and the lyrics feel much less impactful and personal than what Ed is capable of. “2step” and “Stop The Rain,” both more stereotypical pop songs than Sheeran’s usual releases, share this surface level lyricism and overproduction. “Overpass Graffiti” also feels overproduced, and might’ve been much more resonating and Sheeran-esque as a gentler, acoustic tune rather than the dance-pop tune it was. Many of these songs feel unfinished, as though Sheeran was uncomfortable with how they sounded, and yet they were tossed onto the album as nothing more than tracklist filler.

On “=,” a choice few songs highlighted Sheeran’s uniqueness, both as a person and as an artist, with Sheeran’s raw voice, beautiful instrumentation, and limited production, alongside authentic lyrics. Others, meanwhile, felt disorganized, unfinished, and overproduced, with Sheeran reaching outside of the genre he has mastered over the last ten years, without much success. Most of the individual songs were good enough, but they didn’t feel authentically Ed. They certainly didn’t feel as though they could combine to make a powerful album, especially not one named after the most important part of Sheeran’s musical equation. Sheeran’s talent is clearly still there, but the album is, as a whole, underwhelming.