Don’t believe the title of Ed Sheeran’s new album. He doesn’t want to divide. His math this time is all about compiling, accumulating.
On “Divide,” the British singer-songwriter shoots out a dozen, vastly different songs that showcase his tremendous musical ability, from misty ballads to hip-hop. Each one is calculated to find a happy fan somewhere.
If you were looking for a consistent sound, move along. Sheeran’s third full-length album is a bit like the singer himself: in flux. He’s only 26 yet nostalgic for the days of first kisses. He’s in love, but misses his exes. He combines cynicism, idealism and beguiling insecurity.
“I beg you don’t be disappointed with the man I’ve become,” he sings in the terrific opening track “Eraser,” a hard-strumming meditation on fame akin to Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” He mentions in two different songs that he has no college degree and calls himself “just a boy with a one-man show.”
The album has already produced big hits, including the foot-stomping U2-like rocker “Castle on the Hill” that’s destined for arena singalongs, and the slinky, spare “Shape of You,” bound for every dance floor.
But there are missteps, such as “Perfect,” with its swelling orchestra and sincerity, which seems written for a Disney movie. And the bluesy and overwrought “Dive” sounds like a John Mayer reject (Better ballads are “How Would You Feel (Paean)” and “Happier.”)
Then there are the experiments, like “Galway Girl,” an audacious mix of Celtic fiddle and rap which just skirts the edge of parody. “What Do I Know?” – a rare and ginger foray into politics – comes off wishy-washy (“We could change this whole world with a piano.”)
Sheeran is best when he’s heartbroken and bitter and he’s gloriously both on “New Man,” a pop take-down of an ex-lover’s gym-sculpted new man. Later, when Sheeran’s voice breaks in “Supermarket Flowers,” a lovely farewell to a grandparent, it’s impossible not to be moved.
The CD continues his embrace of mathematical titles – previous albums include 2014’s “X” and 2011’s “+.” The new one is certain to add listeners, subtract a few weary of his inconsistency, but definitely multiply his bank account. However you divide it, Sheeran is a special talent.
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