On Ed Sheeran's third album ÷ [Divide], he sets out to go even bigger than with its predecessors.
Previously listed at 12 tracks, the ‘deluxe’ version has 16 songs and runs at about an hour.
‘Eraser’ feels like an unusual way to open the album - Sheeran has never been a strong rapper [he admits as much in ‘Take It Back’ on x] - but is redeemed by the chorus.
‘Castle on the Hill’ is where things get going. This is typical Sheeran territory; a soaring, euphoric ballad about coming back to the place he grew up. Again, it’s a strange place for the song - a ‘hero’s return’ track would surely be better towards the end of the album, but then again this entire work seems to be Sheeran trying to get back to what he cares about most.
'Dive' brings the tempo back down for one of the best vocal performances on the album, while ‘Shape of You’ stands out so much on the record because it’s such a huge step away from Sheeran’s comfort zone: the insanely catchy, Marimba-fuelled percussion seems inspired by the time he spent in West Africa during his year’s hiatus, while the lyrics, although as simple as they are on his other songs, are more explicitly sexual than anything else on the album.
‘Perfect’ is a smooth tribute for Sheeran’s girlfriend that is, essentially, the singer trying to go one better than 'Thinking Out Loud' and succeeds with a less saccharine version of the slow-dance favourite (he doubles back on this for the cringey 'How Would It Feel (Paean)'.
For fans it will surely feature as a ‘first dance’ at countless weddings for the rest of this year and for several years after, but it also shows Sheeran as a shrewd businessman: the way he has mapped out each album from the beginning suggests a canny understanding of how the music industry works, even more so when you consider how Divide was pushed back so it would get its own space away from releases by the likes of The Weeknd and Bruno Mars.
'Galway Girl', a song Sheeran reportedly had to fight to keep on the record, is a fun, foot-stomping treat for anyone who drunkenly slurs about their dubious Irish heritage after one too many pints of Guinness; while his label may not think much of the Irish fiddle you can bet you'll be hearing plenty of them in copycat tracks for the next two years. Apparently in a stubborn mood, Sheeran adds more fiddles to the jaunty bonus track 'Nancy Mulligan'.
Likewise on the Elton John-esque ‘What Do I Know?’ Sheeran makes a playful dig at his own limitations: ÷ was constructed on a blueprint of the songs that have proven most successful for him in the past. He’s less about risk-taking and more about trying to do one better than the biggest songs on his previous two albums, apparently acutely aware that there’s a shelf-life for his singer-songwriter-in-scruffy-jeans shtick. So don't expect any grand political statements or declarations about the state of the world - Sheeran is keeping it close to home.
Diehard fans may clamour for the ballads and he certainly delivers on those but for this listener, as it was on x, it's the bonus tracks where Sheeran often shines brightest; where it sounds like he's having the most fun. 'Barcelona' is a blast of sunshine ahead of the West African-inspired 'Bibia Be Ye Ye' that makes you wonder if it may have been penned after the 'Shocker' that Sheeran drank in Ghana.
This is his name on the album so ÷ leans on little asides from Sheeran’s own talent. Equally, it wasn’t written to please critics - it was written to please fans, to be commercially successful... and that’s exactly what Sheeran will achieve with this.
Undoubtedly it's set to enjoy several weeks, if not months, at the top of the album charts and likely smash several records along the way. And in that sense Divide is astonishing for its sheer ambition alone; this is a polished, well-executed effort from one of the hardest-working men in music.
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