the I’m a big fan of The Graham Norton Show on BBC, which is why, when Norton had Ed Sheeran on as a musical guest, I sat through his performance. I don’t dislike Ed Sheeran any more than I dislike any other fairly middle of the road popstar, but admittedly the reason I held through to the end of the performance (Divide‘s “Castle on the Hill”) is because I hoped some incident might happen. I didn’t wish for an incident that hurt Sheeran, or harmed his career, just one that would later provide an anecdote or a talking point when he went for his inevitable post-performance interview on Norton’s couch.
Something did happen.
At the end of every episode, Graham Norton brings one or two people from the crowd to sit in a chair and tell a story. If the story’s bad, he pulls a lever and they go flying backwards out of the chair. In this case, a young man in his early 20s sat in the chair and proceeded to explain he’s from Sheeran’s hometown. In fact he knew Sheeran when they were kids… In fact they used to be best friends. Everyone gets excited. There’s a reunion on stage. Etc.
Something about the fact that Sheeran writes about his hometown honestly, and that his people seem to really like him reads to me like he’s earnest, maybe more earnest than other pop megastars. When my sister texted me to ask if I’d heard his new album, I said I’d only heard one single, the aforementioned, performed “Castle on the Hill”, a look at Sheeran’s early life through the rosiest of rose-coloured glasses, but that I liked it.
Something I try to avoid is looking at reviews before experiencing the subject, be it an album, movie, or TV show. But if I’m only vaguely interested, I’ll break my rule. I looked at Divide‘s Wikipedia entry and found its reviews were all over the place. Daily Express gave it 5/5 stars, Daily Telegraph 4/5, but then there were others — the outlets I normally trust for reviews. They were less kind. The Guardian gave it 2/5, and Pitchfork (notoriously picky, too often pretentious, even when handling bands I like, such as Radiohead) gave it a disheartening 2.8/10.
Ed Sheeran in the role of pop artist interests me. Theoretically, his music appeals to the greatest amount of people, so why is he reviewed both so generously and harshly? Is it for that reason? Is it because, hey, if he’s setup as this great pop songwriter with his finger on the pulse of the people, he should always knock it out of the park? Did he not this time and that’s why The Guardian and Pitchfork levelled him? Are the Daily Express and Daily Telegraph examples of what snobbish genre fans think of pop fans? That they lap up anything an attractive artists throws at them without second thought?
Finally, what’s the responsibility of a pop artist? This has a lot to do with where they’re coming from. Sheeran presents himself as somewhat of an everyman, despite scoring Victoria’s Secret shows and befriending Taylor Swift. Is he required, as a pop artist, to go where the fans go, and do what they want him to do? Or is he meant to follow his own interests, and if they happen to align with what pop fans like, then great, and when that ends, no hard feelings?
I considered all of this as I listened to Divide, which opens with “Eraser”, a song that is nothing like the rest of Sheeran’s catalogue except in its chorus — a foreshadowing of what’s to come.
The album is filled with musical experiments for an artist as previously straight and narrow as Sheeran. Gone is the boy with the acoustic guitar, and here now is the young man willing to try everything from what sounds like Sean Paul (“Shape of You”, which has faired well on the charts) to quaint Irish-like ingredients (“Nancy Mulligan”).
There’s a sense of dance to a lot of this music. Whether a fiddle or a laser-like sound accents his material, it always sounds like it’s moving, which is indicative of Sheeran’s own journey as a songwriter. I don’t necessarily think he knew the pure pace of his songs would act as an analogy for his career development, but it has.
On “Eraser”, he raps the verses in a harsh, notably British-sounding voice. The British-sounding part isn’t his fault, and it’s arguably a strength when he sings. Unfortunately, to ears used to North American rappers, his voice becomes grating after less than a verse. Opening with something musically new is a good idea. Opening with “Eraser” is a bad idea.
However he moves into familiar, warmer waters on the next track. “Castle on the Hill” uses a kind of U2-esque rhythm section, with a thumping beat and shimmering guitar line, a welcome change from his all but totally singer-songwriter, acoustic aesthetic. Of course, he sings this material with conviction. No matter how much time has positively warped his perception of his childhood and his hometown, which he says he still visits, one gets the feeling he at least believes what he’s singing, even though it’s lofted up by a typical chorus ingredients.
As the album progresses, a lot of it sounds like peak John Mayer (Room for Squares, Continuum), at least in terms of guitar and rhythm, jangly and heavy with pent up emotion, a lot like his voice, which scratches a pop itch all of us have. There’s sense that if we hear a singer perform to what sounds like the edge of their range, the material about which they sing must be equally as important-meaningful-emotional. That’s obviously not always the case, but Sheeran is convincing.
In fact, he convinces all the way through. I’m happy to say I disagree with my beloved Guardian and Pitchfork. I don’t believe they judged him the right way. They judge him and their other artists on a uniform scale, as though the requirements of a boundary pushing alternative rock band (reaching living legend status) such as Radiohead are the same as what’s required of Ed Sheeran.
The subtitle teaser of Laura Snapes’ Pitchfork review reads:
“Ed Sheeran sells trite innocence by the pound. He uses bland wisdom and unimaginative music to ponder the good and bad in people around him, without once looking inward.”
I didn’t realize he was supposed to be the next fucking Freud. Why are we waiting for Ed Sheeran to create something worthy of entry in a college textbook?
All he’s required to do is score our summers, backyard parties, and drives to and from the city. All he’s required to do is please on Graham Norton.
Each genre has a different set of requirements. Look for poured over decision making and commentary in an art rock band. Look for Sheeran to satisfy your pop itch. Does he here? Yes. On top of that, is he trying something new, whether or not it always works? Yes. Does that warrant our respect? Again, I say yes.
I look forward to Ed Sheeran’s next album not because I’m a big fan of his music, but because I’m a fan of his dipping his toes outside of his comfort zone. The varied subgenres of pop he brings into the fold on Divide are all the proof you need that he is looking inward.