Ed Sheeran’s sentimental streak is matched only by his determination to win on “÷,” the British singer’s third album of shrewdly conceived love songs in which every last detail feels arranged for maximum impact.
Introduced as a sensitive folkie on his hit 2011 debut, “+,” Sheeran became a superstar with 2014’s more expansive “x.” The record sold millions of copies, led to sold-out concerts at Wembley Stadium and spawned a modern wedding standard in “Thinking Out Loud,” which won the Grammy Award for song of the year.
Here was a guy, it seemed as his profile kept rising, proud to have learned early on that “heart” rhymes with “chart.”
Yet by the end of 2015 Sheeran’s longed-for success was pushing him toward burnout. So he spent the next year mostly out of sight, traveling the world without a cellphone (or so he’s said).
In his absence, he also cleared a path for a new group of nice guitar guys such as Shawn Mendes and Charlie Puth, each of whom developed a following they might not have had Sheeran still been in the mix.
Now Sheeran’s back, and he’s eager to reclaim his spot at the top.
Pronounced “divide” (after the earlier records called “plus” and “multiply”), “÷” contains the singer’s clearest bids for Top 40 penetration. “Shape of You,” one of two lead singles — and the current No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 — is a slinky electro-pop come-on with traces of the tropical-house style familiar from recent hits by Justin Bieber and Kygo. The other single, “Castle on the Hill,” channels Coldplay channeling U2 for an openly nostalgic tune about missing one’s hometown.
“Running from the law through the backfields and getting drunk with my friends,” he reminisces with an audible lump in his throat, “Had my first kiss on a Friday night / I don’t reckon that I did it right.”
Then there’s the handful of shamelessly goopy ballads, including the John Mayer-ish “How Would You Feel (Paean),” complete with soft-rock guitar solo by John Mayer, and “Perfect,” which Sheeran has said he wrote expressly to outdo “Thinking Out Loud.”
“I found a love to carry more than just my secrets / To carry love, to carry children of our own,” he sings, and you can already see the countless first dances taking awkward shape in your mind.
As calculating as Sheeran can seem here, he understands there’s a fine line between universal and generic, which is why he gives his songs the idiosyncratic touches they need to stand out.
In “Castle on the Hill” it’s a line about how he knows he and his friends have matured because it’s been ages since they’ve thrown up from drinking too much; in “Supermarket Flowers,” which documents his grandmother’s funeral, it’s the painful specificity of the images — nightgowns folded “neatly in a case” and so on.
The new album also reflects Sheeran’s travels with several tunes full of local flavor. But where “Barcelona” and “Bibia Be Ye Ye” might be thought of as hip souvenirs from trips to Spain and Ghana, “Galway Girl” and “Nancy Mulligan” are surprisingly credible Irish ditties (with tin whistle and everything) that few in Sheeran’s audience outside Ireland are likely to view as especially cool.
“Nancy Mulligan” in particular is a welcome oddity — almost certainly the only song about the Protestant-Catholic divide we’ll hear on a major pop release this year.
Then again, Sheeran told the Guardian one reason he wanted to do the Irish stuff is because “there’s a huge gap in the market” that nobody’s filled since the Corrs sold 20 million records in the late 1990s.
What a romantic.