Ed Sheeran seems to be straddling an abyss. On one side is his acoustic, singer-songwriter style that helped him gain popularity in his early albums “+” — pronounced “plus” — and “x” — pronounced “multiply.” On the other side is commercial, radio-friendly pop that pushed his stardom even further with pop songs like 2017’s “Shape of You.”
His new album “=” — pronounced “equals” — once again sees Sheeran trying to balance these two styles. “Bad Habits,” his first single from “=,” feels like an attempt at another commercial smash of the same caliber as “Shape of You.” “Shivers,” the third single from the “=” album, follows “Bad Habits” in its commercial sound and lyrics. Sheeran was apparently successful in this style, since both singles were Top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
However, where Sheeran truly shines on “=” is not in this pop sound — it is in his more stripped-back, intimate tracks. “Visiting Hours” was the second single off “=,” an extremely personal and emotional letter to a loved one who passed away. The first time I heard it, I sat and stared at a wall throughout the entire duration of the song. Each line is a new twist of the knife in my heart. Sheeran wishes to see his loved one and update them on his life while assuring them that he will never forget them.
“Tides,” the album’s opener, caught me off guard right away. The guitar-and-drum instrumental is guaranteed to make your head bob while the lyrics illustrate Sheeran reflecting on his life up to this point. The instruments drop out during the chorus, where Sheeran sings acapella in harmony with himself. He looks at the chaos of his life, represented by the raucous verses, but the glimpses of peace as well. These moments of calm come in the quiet verses, addressed to his daughter who was born in 2020. The song is a self-aware and introspective gem from one of the biggest musicians in the world, starting the album on a very strong note.
Another highlight is “First Times,” another emotional and acoustic song. In this sweet love song, Sheeran describes intimate moments in his relationship, such as “the first kiss, the first night, the first song that made you cry.” He takes these little moments — these “firsts” — and weaves them into the story of his love, making it clear how cherished each and every “first” is. He closes the song with anticipation and excitement for the future, singing “I can’t wait to see everything that’s yet to be, our first child and a million more first times.” The tenderness and love radiating from the track bring tears to my eyes.
In these tracks, “=” is exceptional. It feels somewhat like a callback to what I always loved about Sheeran’s music: simplicity, relatability and vividness of the storytelling. Where “=” fumbles is in the attempt to do it all. “First Times” leads directly into “Bad Habits,” which gave me severe auditory whiplash, still recovering from the sweetness of “First Times” only to be presented with the decidedly less enjoyable “Bad Habits.”
I think “=” has true potential to be loved by fans and doubters alike, but it is bogged down by tracks that feel too much like attempts at radio hits. The songs give listeners a glimpse into Sheeran’s life and family, something fans don’t get to see often, while also being relatable to the average listener. That is a difficult balance, and Sheeran succeeds there.
However, stylistically, “=” clashes with itself, appearing unaware of what kind of album it wants to be. Either way, it is a solid effort from a massive star, and likely contains something that will delight anyone who listens.