On 'Divide' Ed Sheeran succeeds when he keeps it personal

By: 

Daniel G. Moir

Concluding a yearlong hiatus from public eye, Ed Sheeran reintroduces himself on Divide with the rousing “Eraser.”  He is detailed and reflective in this catchy mediation on his success in the six years since his debut.  He is forthright about using alcohol as his “pain eraser” to navigate his changed reality while still feeling the same on the inside.  His complaints that “money is the root of all evil and fame is hell” may be a worn stereotype, but Sheeran’s delivery and honest introspection make his confusion and struggle relatable. 

The deeply personal U2-like “Castle On The Hill” recounts the simpler time of his youth rolling around the countryside of Framlingham in Suffolk with friends singing along to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.”  Built on a solid pounding beat and repetitive guitar figure, it allows bass great Pino Palladino to provide the pulsing musical structure for Sheeran’s soaring vocals and harmonies.  The vocal delivery is deliberate giving depth to lyrics that paint vivid emotional scenes of a prized and remembered past.

This is an album of simple, direct pop songs.  There are no complicated musical passages.  It is the complexity of the personal lyrics that makes the songs work well within the elegant simplicity of the music created.

The one problem is Sheeran’s tendency to stumble into bland territory when he removes his personality on the slower love songs and ballads that pop up throughout the record.  It feels like he is writing for a mass audience and the songs lack the honesty present when he gets personal.  After the first two tracks, “Dive” is a paint-by-numbers R&B ballad that reveals nothing.  The pallidness of the song is especially apparent when compared to the magnificent “Shape of You,” which follows.

“Shape of You” is built on a simple keyboard riff accented with wonderful chanted background harmonies.  Sheehan continues to incorporate his distinct musical rap-influenced delivery on verses that are both melodic and rhythmically interesting.  It is a distinctive and richly layered pop concoction that is immediately engaging and likely to flow out of car radios all summer long.

“New Man” is a message to an ex-lover with sharp observational lyrics about the hipster she is now partnered with.  The attacks are both bitter and precise on the superficiality of Sheeran’s target.  The brilliance of the song is in how the attack is constructed.  In the first verse, the focus is largely a series of biting put-downs on the new lover, before tossing off that he “doesn’t want to hear about your new man.”  As the song unfolds, he is able to realize, and cut to the real painful realization: She has changed.  Where she may have once read poetry by the beach, she is now become nothing more than a trendy reflection of her new boyfriend.  It isn’t just that she just moved on to someone new, it is that she became a completely different person.  It is her change that breaks the heart.

“How Would You Feel (Paean)” could have come off a John Mayer album.  Similar is the faux soul of “Perfect” and the Josh Radin-like “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here.”  Odds are, these songs could very well become big pop radio hits but that doesn’t make them more substantial.  These songs are likely victims of the eventual “skip” button in time.

When Sheeran gets personal and detailed on songs like “Galway Girl” he absolutely triumphs.  The joy is palpable.  It is in these moments that the he allows the façade of celebrity to drop away to reveal the soul of a romantic, heartfelt troublemaker.  “What Do I Know?” reveals the heart of Sheeran’s purpose.  Describing himself as just a “boy with a one man show” who believes that “you can change the whole world with a piano, add a bass, some guitar… and away you go.”  Simple.  Engaging.  Joyous.

Sheeran is at his most raw emotionally in the proper album closer “Supermarket Flowers.”  The death of a beloved grandmother came near the end of his making Divide and was only included at the prodding of his grandfather.  Sheeran writes nakedly from his Mother’s point of view without any pretense.  A simple piano accompament is all that is needed is this revealingly beautiful song of loss.

The Deluxe Edition of the album has four extra songs, any of which could have replaced the aforementioned bland ballads to make for a vastly improved album.  Especially revealing is the Celtic “Nancy Mulligan.”  For students of the history of “the Troubles” of Ireland, this timeless story of the love of his grandparents, William Sheeran and Nancy Mulligan who escape their Protestant/Catholic conflicted backgrounds shows a singer who is best when he remains honest and consistent to his heritage.