“I have grown up, I am a father now / Everything has changed but I am still the same somehow.”
The opening lines to Ed Sheeran’s freshly released album ‘=’ (pronounced ‘equals’) effectively encapsulate his new tracks — he has settled down, gotten his life together and “grown up.” Unfortunately, it becomes increasingly clear that his music has not followed the same trajectory as his life. In fact, Sheeran’s fifth studio album peaks with its opening track, “Tides” — the soft-rock beat propels you forward as he fills you in about his life, until it deliberately reaches a literal halt to reflect the lyrics: “Time stops to still / When you are in my arms, it always will.” But it’s all downhill from there.
When Sheeran traded in his acoustic guitar to experiment with dancehall, R&B and some semblance of hip-hop in 2019 for his album ‘No. 6 Collaboration Project,’ the underwhelming result was partially overshadowed by the long list of internationally-renowned artists he collaborated with, including Justin Bieber, Khalid and Bruno Mars. Long-time fans coping with their disappointment could have brushed it off as a mid-career crisis before he returns to his roots — but the Oct. 29 release of ‘=’ makes it clear that this was wishful thinking. It has become hard to deny that we are in a new era of Sheeran’s music, one marked by unoriginality so striking that you want to convince yourself that it is deliberate.
While Sheeran was never particularly well-known for his inventiveness, his predictable and somewhat cheesy melodies worked during his singer-songwriter days of heartfelt ballads and intimate lyrics. Now you’ll hear “Bad Habits” or “Shivers” on the radio one too many times and maybe you’ll catch yourself humming along in spite of yourself — but Sheeran struggles to strike a chord beyond that. His new songs are also unavoidably clichéd, reiterating the “live in the moment” and “everything works out in the end” sentiments without saying anything new about them.
At his most emotional point, Sheeran still seems uninspired. “Visiting Hours” is about the death of his mentor and friend Michael Gudinski: “I wish that Heaven had visiting hours so I could just swing by and ask your advice,” he sings. If this song makes the audience choke up, it is more because of the emotions inherent to the death of a loved one than his adeptness in creating a uniquely heartfelt track — the lack of nuance in his exploration of pain leaves much to be desired, in stark contrast to the tender sincerity of “Supermarket Flowers,” his previous exploration of grief on ‘÷.’
Even at its notably infrequent high points, ‘=’ is merely a faint echo of Sheeran’s previous works. While some of the tracks will recall previous songs, it only makes their failure to live up to their predecessors more evident — “First Times,” for instance, seems hollow in the wake of “Perfect” and “Thinking Out Loud.” ‘=’’s greatest success, then, is that it will make you nostalgic for the old Ed Sheeran, increasing your appreciation for his first three albums.