Asylum Records UK / Atlantic Records UK
Release Date: October 29th 2021
Reviewed by: Jonathan Andre
- First Times
- Bad Habits
- Overpass Graffiti
- The Joker and the Queen
- Leave Your Life
- Stop the Rain
- Love in Slow Motion
- Visiting Hours
- Be Right Now
Everyone knows Ed Sheeran. I’m not even going to pretend that someone doesn’t know who he is, not even going to entertain that idea. What I will say is this, though. Ed has become a household phenomenon, quite literally. Not that there’s anything bad with becoming a success quite quickly, but sometimes, if you’re not careful, success can go to your head and turn you into something that you are not, or something you know you don’t want to be, but can’t stop the metamorphosis anyway. For Ed, to go from no-one hearing your name, to now everyone hearing it- with the fact that he has released 4 highly successful albums throughout the 2010s, and also that he is from the U.K. (rather than the big, gigantic, massive, towering monstrosity called America); is something extraordinary, like fresh air being pumped into a room that has been sealed off for hours. Because that is how I feel the music industry is sometimes like. From the same artists, the same countries, the same songs, the same messages- and then Ed Sheeran comes along, and no he is not like British boy-band group One Direction. He is different, unique, quirky at times, and by the world’s standards, a nerd. Nerd isn’t a bad term, just a term that I’m sure describes Ed quite well. And that is why I reckon his success has been as it was- people who are ‘nerds’ relate to him- it is a reminder that singing, and music isn’t just reserved for people who ‘look the part’. Because in all honesty, from afar, if I didn’t know Ed was a musician, I probably wouldn’t have picked it.
Ed has released a fair amount of album releases throughout his career- his most famous album, Divide (stylised as ÷), bore the singles ‘Castle on The Hill’, ‘Shape of You’, ‘Galaway Girl’, ‘Happier’, ‘How Would You Feel’, ‘Supermarket Flowers’ and ‘Perfect’, while other songs throughout his career that have charted well on radio, are inclusive of tracks like ‘I Don’t Care’, ‘South of the Border’, ‘Beautiful People’, ‘Photograph’, ‘Thinking Out Loud’, ‘All of the Stars’, ‘I See Fire’ and ‘Bloodstream’, to name a few. Ed’s impact is far unparalleled, maybe even since Phil Collins back in the 1980s, and though only a career spanning since 2011 till now, we’ve been able to witness countless of songs, and albums that have changed the course of music as we know it. I even wrote a blog post on Ed and his impact on society, music, and culture as a whole. Now in 2021, we see Ed’s new album = (pronounced ‘equals’) that released at the end of October, upon the heels of the very successful single ‘Bad Habits’, that in turn released at the end of June. An album that I reckon is one of his most poignant and heartfelt ever since ÷ (divide) (excluding Ed’s initial single from the album, ‘Bad Habits’), this new collection of 14 songs is one of poignancy and introspection as Ed’s new songs are a result of a time when looking inward and self-reflection are very much needed in the society that we are in.
‘…while I myself had high hopes for the track, this sneak peek into the direction Ed is going towards, is unfortunately not as compelling and engaging as a lot of his songs in the past. In fact, this track doesn’t really hit any of the notes that ‘first singles’ should, that if this is the new direction Ed is going into for the future, then this upcoming album may be the first album from Ed that I’ll intentionally skip! Let me just say that up until now, I’ve loved and appreciated most of what Ed has delivered, with the exception of a few songs here and there on his most recent album No. 6 Collaborations Project, but that’s neither here nor there. But what is the point is this- that after a few years of virtually radio silence, Ed’s comeback single (aside from the standalone ‘Afterglow’ earlier on during the year- a song that encourages us all to hold onto the good feelings and the ‘afterglow’ of the good moments in our lives, done all-acoustically) is ‘Bad Habits’. At 3:51, this pop EDM track has shot up to become one of the highest charting songs of 2021 (maybe even high up there next to Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘driver’s licence’). But, having said all of that…the song itself isn’t that memorable. Yes, there’s the mesmerising looping beat, and the message that can be universal, of how we ought to be worried that our bad habits lead to us doing things to others and ourselves that we regret (or even our bad habits allow someone else in our lives to take control- in an oppressive way- rather than us). But even the message and the beat cannot save this song. ‘…my bad habits lead to you…’ Is this refrain supposed to be sung in a way that the persona is ashamed about what they’ve done, or something to be celebrated? Who are the bad habits leading to?
Ed’s voice in and of itself, isn’t really that striking and unique- and with the looping percussion and beat that seemingly sounds very loud in the track, Ed’s voice seems to be drowning amongst all the EDM that should be in the background; but isn’t. It’s like Ed himself is trying to have a battle with the music, to see who comes out on top. The production also isn’t that crash hot- after the song finds the ‘groove’ of the looping EDM beat, the song doesn’t really change, musically, after that. The song seems pretty much fairly-standard, and with the lyrics and production not really giving us something new, even the message of how poor outcomes can be the result of quick and rash decisions, is not enough to pull ‘Bad Habits’ from the depths- the message of the song has been done before, to death. Ed’s always good with the acoustic guitar, and even less instrumentation, because the instruments sometimes distract from his voice and songwriting- and yet ‘Bad Habits’ wants to turn Ed into an EDM artist, when much of his career, music-wise, was heavily influenced by acoustic guitars and those sounds. I’ve appreciated Ed for this long, but where he stands now, compared to his songs in 2017…there should be growth, artistically, sonically, even lyrically. But there isn’t any. Which is very, very unfortunate, because people are itching for new songs and sounds. A looping percussion all the way through a four-minute track is not the definition of ‘new sounds’! Yes, I can appreciate Ed for all of the music he’s created, but not this…’
This above quote was my review of ‘Bad Habits’ that I wrote way back in June, and upon reflection…yes, I still stand by those comments, even today. The song isn’t very good…and maybe that’s ok, because after such a mediocre track like ‘Bad Habits’, then the only way you can go is up, right? Frankly, ‘Bad Habits’ is the sole downside to =, and that in and of itself is something to be proud about. Ed’s album doesn’t reflect what his song ‘Bad Habits’ portrays initially, and herein lies the point- that sometimes, initial preconceptions about a whole project can be totally off, and what releases in full, could be miles better than what you assumed it to be, based off of that one particular song. This is exactly the case with this new album from Ed. Aside from ‘Bad Habits’; this album is pretty good, stellar, even. ‘Tides’, the first song on the album, is as musically chaotic as they come- electric guitars, strikingly powerful drums, the instruments that would allow us to place this song as being one where it’s played in a football stadium, and players walk out onto the pitch to this song. The song itself speaks about Ed’s life thus far, laying it all out there for fans to know and understand. We see a more introspective Ed, someone whose perspective has realigned after having a child. To look at where you life has come to now, and then to wonder with hopeful anticipation for the future, is actually an artform that few of us actually, really understand, and ‘Tides’ sets the scene for an album that, for the most past, is delivering messages and songs that are just that- intropsective looks at life thus far, and looking excitedly for the new chapter in life. ‘Shivers’, the third single from =¸ was actually intended to be the first single…that was until ‘Bad Habits’ came along. ‘Shivers’ the song has Ed singing about someone who gives him the shivers (in the best possible way ever)- most likely his wife, as Ed professes all the things that she does to make him declare in the chorus that ‘…I love it when you do it like that and when you’re close up, give me thе shivers, oh, baby, you wanna dance ’til the sunlight cracks, and when they say the party’s over, then we’ll bring it right back…’ Romantic at best, and sensual/lustful at the worst, ‘Shivers’ reminds us all that there are certain people in our lives, especially in a romantic capacity; who can bring down our own inhibitions and allow us to feel things that maybe weren’t even possible- these people that know us completely from the inside out, are the same people to challenge our limits in a romantic way. ‘First Times’ allows Ed to utilise his acoustic guitar-plucking skills as he creates this song with just vocals and guitar, allowing the lyrics to shine through as we listen to one of the most vulnerable songs he’s recorded on the whole album. ‘First Times’ reminds us of how the most significant and monumental things that can happen in someone life, aren’t necessarily the most defining or even the most impactful. Sure, Ed has filled out arenas and has sold platinum albums, but the things that he cherishes the most are the times when he just hangs out with the person he loves.
‘Overpass Graffiti’ starts off the album post-‘Bad Habits’, and is a perfect ‘start’ to = that shows us the calibre of what Ed can write- this song draws upon a lot of 1980s influences (namely the synthesiser and strong drum beats) as Ed delivers a track that brings the issue and topic of having regret and lamenting over a relationship that has failed and you start replaying in your head, reasons why it did, and wondering what you could’ve done to make it better. A song where the persona brings forth a relationship that happened a while ago, we see regret walk hand in hand with contentment and peace, as we understand that even though we may have wanted relationships to travel differently, the relationships that have nevertheless occurred, if only for a while, have made an imprint and impact on the other person’s heart and demeanour, and that is a good thing. Relationships, in all its durations and facets, shape a person to be more that they are today, and even though someone can’t forget a relationship like how graffiti cannot come off an overpass; maybe herein lies the point- that no matter how dark, hurtful and dangerous some relationships can be, to totally forget it may seem impossible, but it can still be used to give us perseverance and character, something that may not have been acquired if all relationships were smooth-sailing.
‘The Joker and the Queen’ slows down the tempo quite a bit as Ed delivers the track with just an acoustic guitar, keyboards, strings, and his voice. The song itself is a personal one for Ed- his now-wife Cherry Seaborn could’ve fallen for any other man instead of him. As this song suggests, it was Ed that was the lucky man, and at any point during his dark moments in his life, she could’ve left, but the song reminds us all, that there’ll be people out there (albeit few and far between) that’ll stick it out and stay during the hard times. As described more through genius.com; ‘…through the song’s lyrics, Ed Sheeran is contatly seen doing references to monarchy and its terms, by characterizing himself as the joker, and his wife as the queen, what could be interpreted a method to express that they’ve always been different people, from other social groups or places…’ ‘Leave Your Life’ has Ed singing to his daughter Lyra, declaring that he would never leave her life, and that he’d always love her for the rest of his- this song reminds us all to keep telling the people that we love, that we love them; to let them know that they matter in our lives. It is when we become parents that our priorities shift, change and realign. ‘Leave Your Life’ is a reminder to place relationships, especially familial ones, at the centre; instead of other things that are indeed superfluous in the end.
‘Collide’ brings the tempo back up as Ed speaks about his marriage to Cherry and how when they ‘collide’ together, everything else seems to fade, and the problems of the world seem to become insignificant in the sight of what is happening between them in their own personal lives; while ‘2step’ sees Ed back into rap territory, as this song feels reminiscent to that of ‘Galway Girl’, a song that also employs a rap-like technique. ‘2step’ the song, discusses Ed’s own personal attitude to life, and how at times it can feel as though the pace of it is faster than it should be. The song employs this notion that when things feel a little out of control, then a little two-step with the person you love is the way to go, and the problems you face seemingly pale in comparison to the experience of the two-step that is being experienced. ‘Stop the Rain’ is a deeply personal song for Ed, as he voices in his own words, that this song is about ‘…a lawsuit I’m involved with. Every time I’ve ever taken influence from a song, I give it credit. And this thing that I’m in at the moment, I believe I’m in the right. But the rain just won’t stop. It’s just about knowing that you’re in the right; and knowing that you will eventually get out of it. I do feel like this song is me taking the s*** of that situation and making something great out of it…’ Lawsuits are difficult things to navigate, and regardless on who’s in the right and who’s in the wrong; it’s heavily taxing on all people involved in the whole process, especially when both parties involved believe that they are right in their convictions.
‘Love in Slow Motion’ allows the listener to see Ed declare his priorities and set clear boundaries so that he can foster relationship with his wife Cherry, and is a great reminder for each of us to spend time with our loved ones, and to invest time into the connections we want to prioritise in our lives- be it relationships in a romantic sense, familial relationships, or even friendships (because time spent hanging out and fostering said relationships carry with it a potential for the relationships to last a long time); while the second single from the album, ‘Visiting Hours’, is another emotional song, even on par with songs ‘The Joker and the Thief’, ‘First Times’ and ‘Leave Your Life’. With an acoustical guitar and special electronic effects; the song itself is an ode to a fallen friend of Ed’s (Australian music producer Michael Gudinski); and was even debuted live at the state funeral of the Australian producer as well. An honest and heartfelt exploration about life, death, saying goodbye, and living life with no regrets, there’s this concept and understanding of the afterlife, something that a lot of people need to reckon with, in their own lifetimes, wrestling if there is actually life after death, and if so; what happens to each of us anyway. Regardless of personal opinions, ‘Visiting Hours’ nevertheless allows people to take stock of their own lives, and to say things that they ought to, to the people that they need to, because we do only have one life to live here in this earth, and whatever we think about heaven, hell and the rest of it, the reality of the matter is that the afterlife has an element of faith and trust that we need to rely upon. That part of the journey isn’t as concrete as the time we have here on this Earth. Maybe, ‘Visiting Hours’ can allow us to think more about things beyond the here and now. And if a song like this can do that, then I’m sure God could be working through that, right? The album the ends with the songs ‘Sandman’ and ‘Be Right Now’, the former is a lullaby about the sandman for his daughter, while album ender ‘Be Right Now’ encourages us all to be present in the moment wherever we are, to be aware of what our circumstances and situations are allowing us to experience, as we fully commit to the present, instead of worrying about the future, and regretting about the past. For it is when we focus on the present, and really live live well, that we can embrace the beauty of the relationships we have in the moment, and to cherish the gift of now, and to learn from the tension of the now and the not yet.
= is an album full of hope, heartfelt moments of encouragement, even times of expressive love; as Ed delivers 14 songs full of punch and power. This is definitely an album for anyone who’s enjoyed Ed’s music before…and believe me when I say that everyone’s first impression of ‘Bad Habits’ is not indicative of what the whole = album really is. ‘Bad Habits’ is actually the only downside, and in fact, if this album was 13 tracks instead of 14 (with the omission of ‘Bad Habits’), then the albums impact and poignancy would’ve have mattered one bit…in a good way. Ed’s new album is one of reflection, but also one of assurance, declaratory love statements, and a sense of identity, purpose and hope, and a must if you’ve loved British music the past, Ed’s music in general, or if you can appreciate pop music with a slight inspirational edge. Ed’s music has always been thought-provoking, and this album is no different. Well done Ed for this new offering of 14 tracks. Definitely one of my favourites of this year, and my favourite Ed album since ÷ in 2017.
4 songs to listen to: Visiting Hours, Leave Your Life, Tides, The Joker & The Thief
RIYL: Taylor Swift, Shawn Mendes, Lewis Capaldi, Maroon 5, Adele