Album titles are very often given more credence than they perhaps deserve. After all, most artists settle on the actual name as one of the last items on their todo list – somewhere in between sending the artwork to the label via WeTransfer and alphabetising the list of credits. Ed Sheeran’s ‘=’ follows his mathematically minded opening trilogy, and it puts you in mind of completion, resolution, and conclusion. The album itself, however, offers little in the way of those things, thriving instead on a series of dichotomies – between the everyman and the star, the guitarist and the producer, between the humble pop savant and the brash stadium-filling star.
‘Tides’ immediately sets the tone. Brusk acoustic work emboldened by an emphatic production, the lyrics deal with fatherhood, and the impact of new commitments on his life. Switching between a desire for independence and love for those around him, the song pivots deftly between two vantage points, a kind of late 20s banger for young dad who just wanna have fun.
Love is a dominant theme on the record. ‘First Times’ is a lush, romantic slo-mo montage of cute-meets and hot dates, almost perfectly tailor-made for the signing of registrars around the country. ‘Love In Slow Motion’ is equally affecting, if a little cloying, while ‘The Joker And The Queen’ offers tinkled notes of piano amid Ed Sheeran’s whispered vocal.
Indeed, Ed Sheeran’s grasp of big, universal topics is matched only by his desire to sketch out intimate, personal detail. It’s here that one of the record’s more glaring faultlines opens up, however – can he exist both as an everyman and a rock star? In truth, Ed comes close to having his cake and eating it, but the largesse of aeroplane dates and feeling empty after playing to 80,000 people at Wembley Stadium soon becomes a little sickly.
When ‘=’ thrives it reflects Ed Sheeran’s own ambitions through his one-man-and-a-loop-pedal capabilities. ‘Sandman’ is rooted to that cute, plucked melody, the kind of thing IKEA ads were made for; ‘Overpass Graffiti’ mind you goes toe to toe with The Weeknd, and comes close to defeating Abel on his own neon-soaked 80s turf.
A record that moves between intimacy and bombast, ‘=’ abandons uncertainty, with Ed Sheeran’s unabashed gift for melody serving as the glue to hold his ideas together. He’s not an innovator in any true sense – he’s not Bowie or Prince – but those lyrical twists and instantly definable Sheeran-ness touch millions of lives. Unashamedly broad, it can lack detail and punch; yet ‘=’ has something about it that is difficult to shrug off, while being hard to truly relate to.
Words: Robin Murray
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