Ed Sheeran has perfected the recipe for a mega-selling album. Simply combine inoffensive ballads with up-tempo pop songs, before seasoning with a dash of something new to feign growth — in this case, synth-pop. As with previous entries in the superstar’s arithmetic operator series (“+,” “x” and “%”), “=” is engineered to please as many people as possible. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Sheeran knows his way around a catchy chorus as well as anyone and the stripped-back moments are just sincere enough to tug at your heartstrings.
But let’s start with the new ingredient: Sheeran’s blossoming love of the banger. Building on his flirtation with dance music on “No. 6 Collaborations Project,” “=” brings the chart-topping Brit to the club. With “Bad Habits,” Sheeran proved equally adept at orchestrating synths as he is strumming an acoustic guitar. The smash hit, which has been streamed more than 600 million times on Spotify alone, is the album’s “Shape of You,” a song so ubiquitous that it doesn’t really make any sense to resist it. Impressively, the 30-year-old followed it up with an even better bop called “Shivers.”
While that song stands out as the album’s slickest, most immediate pop offering, “Overpass Graffiti” comes a close second. A melancholy anthem in the vein of “Castle on the Hill,” this is a thematic outlier as, nestled among the many declarations of love to Sheeran’s wife and newborn daughter, it recounts a breakup. Other up-tempo songs of note are “Collide” and “Be Right Now.” The former finds Sheeran singing sweet nothings over dream-house production worthy of Robert Miles, while the latter is the club equivalent of an inspirational quote drenched in mellow synths.
The U.K. hitmaker has proven a quick study in upbeat dance-pop, but the album’s heart is still its collection of semi-acoustic tunes. Given Sheeran’s knack for penning wedding songs like “Thinking Out Loud” and “Perfect,” “=” is surprisingly bereft of a timeless ballad. The closest is probably “First Times.” Of all the tracks dedicated to his wife, this is the most universal, with Sheeran looking forward to all of the firsts still ahead for the couple. Depending on your disposition, this is either deeply romantic or a coma-inducing sugar bomb. The subdued production goes a long way in toning down the saccharine subject matter.
Another winner from the half-dozen or so quieter moments is “Sandman,” a cute ditty dedicated to Sheeran’s newborn daughter. It takes a special kind of grump not to find this exercise in parental adoration endearing. While many of the ballads feel interchangeable, there’s something refreshingly specific about this, capturing a moment that feels real and palpable. The same is true of “Visiting Hours,” a tribute to late Australian music exec Michael Gudinski, where Sheeran imagines introducing his child to his mentor in heaven. The addition of backing vocals from other artists shepherded by Gudinski (of Kylie Minogue and Jimmy Barnes fame) is a nice touch.
At its worst, “=” veers into Hallmark card territory. “The Joker and the Queen” feels like an undercooked throwback to “+,” while “Love in Slow Motion” sounds custom-made for elevators and doctors’ offices. And then there are songs best described as pleasant filler. “Leave Your Life” is aggressively bland, while “Stop the Rain” fails to leave an impression. This is the kind of track that deals in platitudes rather than genuine insight into the human condition. Equally disposable is the polite grime of “2step,” which asks you to suspend disbelief long enough to swallow Sheeran and his lady burning up the dance floor every weekend.
Ultimately, you already know if you’re going to like “=.” If Sheeran’s previous albums evoked a genuine emotional response, you’re in for a treat. If not, this isn’t going to change your mind. The songsmith unashamedly sticks to his winning formula on album four, which makes perfect sense commercially. However, you can’t help but think that a master melody-maker like Sheeran still has something extraordinary up his sleeve. In the meantime, get ready to hear the hits from “=” on the radio for the next 18 months or so.