Roll your eyes all you like, but Ed Sheeran has been among the world’s biggest pop stars for almost a decade, inspiring just as much devotion as he has bafflement at his success. His new single, “Bad Habits”, will not change anyone’s mind. A woozy, stilted comeback from pop’s most boring man, it is buoyed by an unbilled but aggressively pilfered sample of Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy”. It will be inescapable.
As a musician, Sheeran basically trades in Facebook statuses: a sliver of “aww, remember when?” nostalgia here, some saintly worshipping of an imaginary dreamgirl there. His brand is rooted in airless relatability, and the unusual blend of the personal and the non-specific. Remember getting drunk in a park with your mates at 15? Isn’t it nice to be in love with someone? Don’t break-ups suck?
“Bad Habits”, Sheeran’s first single from his impending fifth album, isn’t quite as lyrically anodyne as his weakest material. Riffing on his struggles with binge-eating and alcohol, he sings of bad habits leading to “late nights ending alone”: “It started under neon lights and then it all got dark.” It feels nicely confessional in a way that his writing typically doesn’t, yet it’s housed in a track that goes nowhere sonically.
Sheeran sings atop chugging Eighties production and that famous “Smalltown Boy” synth line, but there’s none of that track’s bells and whistles. Sheeran can’t emulate frontman Jimmy Somerville’s blissful falsetto either, while the luxurious charisma of The Weeknd’s 2020 record After Hours – the dazzling trauma epic that feels like its other closest inspiration – is absent. It results in a song that never quite takes lift-off, and lazily nudges towards its conclusion.
Compared to “Shape of You”, the tropical house bop that kicked off Sheeran’s last solo record (an album of collaborations was released in 2019), it’s nowhere near as embarrassing, at least. Where that song tried to emulate the Rihanna that only exists in the mind of someone who actually doesn’t know or even like Rihanna, “Bad Habits” blissfully avoids moments of cringe. Its video, in which Sheeran sports sparkly eye make-up as an East London vampire, is not so lucky. But we can’t have everything, can we?
If we were to compare Sheeran to his friend and occasional collaborator Taylor Swift, he’s still stuck in his Reputation era – a pop detour that feels like an ill-fitting suit, with the potential for far more interesting soundscapes right around the corner. Whether Sheeran has the ability or the pure gutsiness to elevate the folky earnestness of his earliest work, to bridge his past and his future and deliver his own Folklore, remains a question mark. There’s something so much safer, after all, about letting the toplines do the work and rummaging through Abel Tesfaye’s leftovers.
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