Having finally exhausted all the basic math symbols, it makes sense that Ed Sheeran would have saved – to the end, mainly because it’s the most similar tone to their 2011 debut, +. A no-frills acoustic project that finds Sheeran diving into some of the most serious issues of his career and speaking out about some personal tragedies, though his brotherhood with the project that ignited the pop world 12 years ago is still evident on this one. That at some point Sheeran lost touch with him along with all the fascinating success. Six albums later, and his songwriting penchant for presenting big emotions in the most superficial and universally relatable way has become more apparent, something that doesn’t quite land when he’s talking about things as intense as cancer diagnoses. You won’t find the lyrical specificity or whimsy that endeared us all in the beginning. We’ve heard his voice on so many achingly bland tunes played over and over again that his nasal, childlike tone feels grating in any context. And those backgrounds, despite the presence of The National’s Aaron Dessner, are as harmless and barely visible as ever. While there are a couple of moments where the rawness comes through in poignant ways—not to mention the project is home to some of his most impressive vocal performances in years—at its core, it’s still an Ed Sheeran album.
The album opens with some of his strongest moments. Single “Boat” opens with a raw acoustic and string chorus that is genuinely one of the most uplifting and effective hooks for getting the emotions flowing. Talk about being strong despite all the horrible things life throws your way, a theme that lingers throughout the album, graces the chorus with some nice harmonies and a great middle note in an unexpected place, though it doesn’t end quite as strongly. . as it could have, silently disappearing. Sheeran also adds some great vocal moments in the bridge. “Salt Water” is one where the melody isn’t as strong, but it’s easily the best song on the project from a lyrical standpoint. Seemingly addressing his struggles with suicidal thoughts, Sheeran adds a more poetic touch to the proceedings. Despite clunky, undeserved drumbeats in the background and a chorus melody that’s going nowhere, the verses are quite somber and powerful, featuring images of Sheeran standing on a precipice, the natural elements almost daring him to give up. leap. His faltering vocal performance definitely drives it home too, as the strings swell once more in the final moments. The lead single “Eyes Closed”, on the other hand, falls completely flat. It seems like even on an album like this, the label was demanding a boring, radio-ready Ed Sheeran single, and this one feels like watered-down “Shape of You.” With a music box guitar riff serving as the backbone, they couldn’t make too much noise on the acoustic album, so when Sheeran sings the chorus, it feels like he’s playing too loud, especially when he goes through the “ayayaya “. He is reminiscent of a small child making the most annoying sounds he can muster.
The song “Life Goes On,” as you might guess from the title, finds Sheeran outdoing himself when it comes to going over every platitude and overblown image he knows. Despite touching on things that hit “like a train,” “waves crash,” “storms will roll in,” and sink “like a stone,” the one he invented lands more awkwardly: “easy comes hard.” This is all set against a backdrop showing Sheeran still trying to redo “Thinking Out Loud”. A clue about the death of a friend, it really sounds like Sheeran would like to spend a little more time seeming to care about him. Another important moment for him that doesn’t seem to appear on the next track, “Dusty,” about sharing records with his young daughter. Aside from the appropriately dusty crackling percussive beat in the back, the track has almost nothing in the way of dynamics, movement, or emotion. People call songs one note, but this is almost the definition, as Sheeran descends to a lower, whisperier register. The worst part of this doesn’t come until a disconcerting transition to the bridge with a weird flourish of noises and a horrible key shift. “End of Youth” does better with some more believable and specific lyrics about all the pain that makes Sheeran grow up and start to face things as an adult. With some of the traditionally long-winded and fast-paced passages from him, they feel appropriate here to represent the bad news that just keeps coming and coming.
The derivative nature of these songs continues further down the track listing, but no more so than on “Colourblind,” which is much more of a dead ringer to “Perfect” than “Life Goes On” is to “Thinking Out Loud.” Despite a decently colorful lyrical theme, the overly digitized synths in the background make it sound like a machine designed to lull a baby to sleep. Arguably, Sheeran sounds pretty good here, but that’s only because he’s copying what worked before on a T. The tracks “Curtains” and “Spark” are certainly technically proficient pop tunes that have enough fleshed-out, catchy instrumentals. tune you can nod to – it shows that Sheeran is here for a reason, he knows how to write a hook, but there’s not much special about them. “Cortinas” is a little more successful because it has a touch of rock that breaks things up. The track “Borderline” also has one of those nice hooks—in fact, it might be the best here—but it’s delivered by such a screeching, screeching falsetto rendition from Sheeran that it becomes completely inaudible.
It’s not too bad, but the questionable falsetto continues on the track “Vega” as Sheeran compares his many responsibilities to the burning pain of being the brightest star in the sky. The chorus feels very abrupt and unfinished as it leads into “Sycamore,” essentially the simplest explanation of his wife’s diagnosis story. We see Sheeran flustered in the hospital waiting room, and despite one of the more repetitive and bland choruses, it’s still interesting to listen to. “No Strings” is a sleepy song reaffirming his dedication to his wife, before “The Hills of Aberfeldy” wraps things up. Apparently written 10 years ago, it would be great to hear Sheeran tap into this folk song energy more often: it allows him to showcase his career, and the baritone range from which he approaches this might be his greatest strength.
It’s always been clear that Ed Sheeran is a wildly talented guy – just take a look at his pedal-looping antics – but making billionaires seems to have eroded the hungriest version of the last decade and replaced it with someone who’s satisfied with just keep going, even when you’re talking about something so near and dear to your heart. It just means that you should be content with getting a couple of moments per album where that talent still shines, and not expect much more.
Favorite Songs: Saltwater, The Aberfeldy Hills, Curtains
Least Favorite Track: Dusty