Did I ever mention how much I hate the “white guy with acoustic guitar” type song? Well, I hate it a lot. Usually an attempt at a bare, intimate sound just comes off as a cynical way to put in as little effort as possible towards an interesting arrangement. Ed Sheeran is the poster boy for that. But despite how much I hate what he’s spawned, he’s actually a pretty damn good songwriter for what it’s worth. I remember when he released “Don’t” a couple years back. I heard it on the radio, and really loved it. Then I heard that it was an Ed Sheeran song, and I was dumbfounded how that dweeby folk singer who wrote the simpering crack-hoe anthem “The A-Team” had actually put together a convincingly groovy R&B pop jam. Then he released “Thinking Out Loud”, and I was reminded of why I hated most of Ed Sheeran’s previous output. The album that had spawned those singles didn’t really impress me much either.
However, when I heard about the new upcoming album from Sheeran, I dreaded what the first single was going to be. It’s usually about 50/50 whether or not I’m gonna like an Ed Sheeran song, and in most cases, I’m either going to love it or absolutely hate it. Well, we actually got two singles. And they’re pretty different from each other. The variety is a good start, I’ll admit. The first I wanna talk about is “Shape Of You”. Despite basically biting its production from the past couple of Sia singles, I actually was sort of optimistic about this track as I first listened to it. I know I complained earlier about the acoustic guitar that Ed loves so much, but here it’s creatively used more as a percussive effect, rather than carrying the chords. But the problems start to show themselves pretty quickly. I hear people go on about how good of a lyricist Sheeran is, but here he basically does the same old sex tropes that you can basically hear from any bargain bin R&B singer. But the more significant flaw here is that none of the hooks really land quite as well as they should. At least with the indie folk style that Sheeran used to inhabit, you could make the argument that it’s not meant to be catchy exactly, but it’s very apparent that he’s trying to make a pop song here, and it lacks the sort of ear worms that “Don’t” and even “Thinking Out Loud” had, as much as I despise the latter song.
The second of the two tracks, “Castle On The Hill”, fares a bit better. It’s basically the type of major label radio indie rock song dripping in gooey nostalgia that Coldplay have been trying to write since before they really started to suck in the past few years. It’s schmaltzy, sure, but I like it. The song greatly benefits from some much welcomed grit in Sheeran’s vocal performance. Again, there’s not much of a hook, but it’s made up for by the more energetic arrangement compared to the relative limpness of “Shape Of You”. However, I’m a bit worried about the direction that Ed Sheeran is taking on this record. No matter what I think of his music, it always provides a pretty strong reaction, positive or negative. But here, we have a slightly above average track and a slightly below average track. Neither is terrible, but neither is great either and I think Ed Sheeran’s personality is slowly being siphoned out of his music. It’s sort of like a sculpture that you sand the rough edges off of. It may look smoother but it loses some of the unique texture that it originally had. It’s something that happens with a lot of artists that start off in more independent areas that then find pop success, and Ed Sheeran is dangerously close to falling off that tightrope.