Ed Sheeran was about halfway through his briskly paced concert Thursday night at Staples Center — the first of three this week for the British singer and songwriter behind the biggest album of 2017 — when he took a moment to let the capacity crowd in on his creative process.
The next song he wanted to play, he said, was one of the last he wrote for “÷” (pronounced “divide”), which was released in March and has moved more than 2 million sales-and-streaming units in the United States, according to Nielsen Music.
After the record came out, Sheeran discovered that “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here” wasn’t getting as much attention as other tunes on “÷,” including the proudly anthemic “Castle on the Hill” and “Shape of You,” the slinky club hit that topped Billboard’s Hot 100 for months.
As a result, he didn’t play the acoustic ballad much once he got on the road — at least until he chose to do it one fateful night. And guess what happened?
“It got a good reaction,” Sheeran revealed. So now he performs it every so often, as he did Thursday.
Wow — cool story, bro.
Sheeran’s coolly transactional thinking about “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here” is indicative of pop’s most calculating mind. The 26-year-old singer emerged at the beginning of the decade as something of an oddity: a fuzzy-headed folkie given to hyperactive rapping whose live act consisted of just him, a guitar and a bank of looping pedals.
But he soon found huge success, duetting with Taylor Swift and earning a Grammy nomination for song of the year for “The A Team,” a gentle weeper from his debut album, “+.”
Since then he has worked with deliberation to deepen his foothold, and he’s hardly been coy about his strategy. Speaking to a reporter recently, Sheeran said he recorded a pair of Irish-accented ditties for “÷” because he thought they’d fulfill an unmet demand in the marketplace.
Which isn’t a terrible (or novel) reason to make a pop song! In his best material, Sheeran matches his crowd-pleasing instinct with a melodic flair and an attention to lyrical detail in a way that lifts the music above mere utility. “Nancy Mulligan,” one of those Irish tunes, uses a ready-made arrangement to tell a poignant tale about how Sheeran’s grandparents defied their families in order to marry.
Like all great pop, the song demonstrates that working for oneself and working for an audience aren’t mutually exclusive — that, indeed, a sweet spot exists at the overlap of the two.
At Staples Center, where he was still performing as a one-man band, Sheeran hit that sweet spot in a spirited “Castle on the Hill” — with its warm recollection of his wasted youth in the English countryside — and in “Nancy Mulligan,” in which he seemed to take real pleasure as he replicated the studio version’s fiddle and bodhrán parts with only the strings and body of his acoustic guitar.
“Thinking Out Loud,” his Grammy-winning slow jam, was strong too, even if its ubiquity at weddings has changed its value in Sheeran’s mind. Watching him sing it here, you could tell how seriously he takes the responsibility of doing a song that means so much to people; “Thinking Out Loud” is about their stories now, not just his — clearly a moving experience of its own for a songwriter as ambitious as Sheeran.
Beyond those highlights, though, too much of Thursday’s concert had the feel of a routine obligation, as though the singer were satisfying his fans but not himself.
And, yeah, there’s an admirable quality to that mission, which went over well enough among the thousands at Staples Center who’d turned up to relive memories to a live soundtrack.
But crafty songs like “Dive” and “Sing” seemed to be accomplishing nothing for the dutiful red-haired man onstage, while a dull cover of “Feeling Good” — the way-overdone mid-’60s show tune revived by everyone from Michael Bublé to the Pussycat Dolls — just left you feeling sorry for a very smart songwriter who’d surely have preferred to sing something else.
At least it got a good reaction.