In late 2015, Ed Sheeran took a year-long social media break. He ditched his phone and explored cities that were tour stops. He would grab a drink at the pub, wait for friends to turn up and get lost in his own thoughts, instead of scroll through some feed. You would think that this time to reflect informed third album Divide, released March 3. Instead, his main inspiration seems to be the data sheet emailed to him every week — the album sales, the seats sold at Wembley Stadium, what has worked in the past. In Divide, Ed only plays to his biggest strengths. It’s his safest album yet.
The rare signs that Ed has expanded his horizons are promising. Bonus track “Bibia Be Ye Ye,” co-written by Ghanian rapper Fuse ODG, has its charms. Ed picks up the pieces from the wasted night before to dazzling Afropop guitars; it leaves you wondering what his version of Graceland might sound like. “Supermarket Flowers” is Ed saying goodbye to his grandmother, combining “The A Team”‘s eye for detail with “Photograph”‘s stately songwriting approach.
But so much of Divide merely tries to top Multiply smash “Thinking Out Loud.” “How Would You Feel (Paean)” is pleasant, though its idea of romance — watching night turn to day on a rooftop — is cliche. Ed’s metaphors can be clumsy, though too many in “Hearts Don’t Break Round Here” fall flat, like how she “shakes my soul like a pothole every time.” Past ballads have shown how Ed, like pal Taylor Swift, feels more than anyone else. The ones in Divide can feel like a shameless attempt to tug at heartstrings.
Ed knows he is an unlikely superstar. You don’t want to see him shirtless, as he once sang himself. Divide drives that everyman shtick to the ground. Aggrieved intro “Eraser” takes down the very music industry that has embraced him, as if Multiply’s “The Man” didn’t already exist. “New Man” calls out the guy his ex is now dating, for bleaching his nether regions and keeping up with Kim Kardashian. But for such popular kid-style teasing, Ed is being the bigger douche. “Saying love can change the world in a moment, but what do I know?” Ed sings later, shrugging at how the earth has caught fire. This Jason Mraz-style ditty reveals that during his time off he didn’t swap his phone for a newspaper, or even Last Week Tonight, or even Lemonade.
Ed has also done better than Divide to channel his influences, from Eminem to Damien Rice, without copying them wholesale. He wrote lead single “Shape of You” with Rihanna in mind, though considering “Work,” it sounds a year overdue. “Perfect” is for current girlfriend Cherry Seaborn, though Ben E. King‘s 1961 doo-wop classic “Stand By Me” sounds like the bigger inspiration, particularly with its romantic strings. Ed says he fought with his label to keep “Galway Girl,” as proof he can make even Irish folk rock star material. This would be daring, had he not lifted its exact premise from a 17-year-old song by country-folk songwriter Steve Earle. “Sing,” where he acts like Justified-era Justin Timberlake, seem novel by comparison.
Of course, Ed would be quick to tell you otherwise. “My benchmark for the second album [Multiply] was Coldplay,” he said to GQ UK. “This album it’s [Bruce] Springsteen. I’m obsessed with how his career spans constantly doing stadiums and putting out work that is center but left of center. I bet he cared about stats and figures as well.” But neither could have predicted “The A Team” being a hit, or that he’d write for Justin Bieber while inspiring newcomers like Shawn Mendes. No amount of math would’ve shown that Ed would be a star. He should remind himself of that.