Ed Sheeran is now legitimately a big deal.
He’s just announced the release of third album, ÷ (i.e Divide) bolstered by the release of two lead singles, Shape of You and Castle On A Hill. This is, of course, great news if you like Ed Sheeran – which, clearly, a lot of people do; his sophomore album x sold upwards of ten millions worldwide – but for Britain’s premier ginger this new release also inadvertently highlights one of major problems that has always surrounded Sheeran – he’s just really unsure about what type of artist he wants to be.
This may seem an odd judgement, given that ever since his debut in 2010 with The A-Team, Sheeran has cultivated a massive fan-base and significant chart success with his brand of acoustic-guitar led confessionals. But to judge Ed Sheeran as a solely indie artist is a naive move, and indeed here we can draw comparisons between Sheeran and one of his immediate contemporaries; former pop titan Taylor Swift.
Much like Sheeran, Swift herself had cultivated gargantuan success with her, similarly themed, love confessionals, and she was the biggest (and youngest) star that country music had seen in a long time, if ever. But Swift harboured notions beyond country music; her first true breakthrough came with her second album Fearless and the two lead singles, Love Story and You Belong With Me that married her love of country with a below-the-radar pop sensibility to engage her music with the masses.
Swift clung to country music for a few more years (winning Album of the Year at the Grammy’s for Fearless and being nominated once again for fourth album Red) but her burgeoning status as the brightest pop-star on the planet took manifest on her block-buster 1989 record, an album that threw all caution to the wind and plunged Swift into the deepest trenches of pop music, helped along by legendary producer Max Martin, who helmed the album as co-executive producer.
Whatever our feelings for Taylor Swift now, we can’t forget just how much of crystallisation of her music and talent 1989 was; showing the effects of what happens when an artist first too hesitant enough to go totally ‘pop’ and ‘mainstream’ bites the bullet and goes for it hell for leather.
And this is, eventually, what is going to happen to Ed Sheeran, Ed Sheeran is probably very aware of this fact himself. And the music we’ve heard from Divide does indeed point towards a distinctly synth-pop element. Hell, Shape of You is practically Cheap Thrills by Sia, just with an acoustic guitar thrown in for good measure. It’s an interesting prospect for Sheeran, going full pop, but it still seems a concept that he’s not entirely comfortable with. This is, understandable, as the genre of pop is not really known for its emasculating qualities (unless you have the bone structure of Zayn Malik) and a straight-up change to his sonic sound, whilst working wonders for Swift, might be a cause of concern for Sheeran. For every Taylor Swift – who made the jump from one genre to the other with relative ease – there are numerous other cases of artists who have tried to go ‘full pop’ (maybe a little half-heartedly) and failed, most recently including former indie artists Nina Nesbitt and Gabrielle Aplin, who switched their acoustic guitars for synthesisers and sizzling choruses…and barely a whimper from the mainstream.
It’s worth pointing out, however, that Sheeran’s current stance- halfway between the world of indie-acoustic guitar bops and full on pop-star – is working extremely well for him. Just today, both lead singles from Divide have taken the top two spots in the UK charts, with Shape of You being crowned number one and even breaking a record set by One Direction for the number of streams in one day. But as great as this all is for Sheeran – who, after more than a year of radio silence is making an extremely successful comeback – his hesitance to fully commit to one genre and one sonic sound does have an impact on his music. It feels hollow, it feels non-commital, it feels like it’s leading you to one place – ie a massive fuck-off chorus – and just never quite pays off.
So, Divide will not be Ed Sheeran’s 1989 but it may well be his Red; an album that allowed Taylor Swift to dabble in both sonic modes – in her case, country and pop – and still make an album for the ages. It was a stepping stone on her journey to becoming the biggest pop-star in the world and hopefully, Ed Sheeran will soon follow suit. Or he may well not, and just save his best pop chorus for Biebs. Either way, we can all be quite certain of one thing; I don’t think he will ever create a pop song as perfect as Style, so please, Ed, if your out there reading this, prove me wrong
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Words by George Griffiths