Last week, Stereogum published an article that declared, "Ed Sheeran is the king of pop." There must have been some mistake; surely, the fair people at Stereogum weren’t discounting better, more entertaining male pop stars like The Weeknd or Bruno Mars. Even Justin Bieber in all of his inconsistency must lay a better claim to the title of king of pop. However, Sheeran’s influence is undeniably pervasive. His particular brand of treacly, earnest acoustic folk-pop has spawned a litany of imitators like Shawn Mendes and James Arthur. Significantly, he wrote Bieber’s execrable 2015 hit “Love Yourself,” one of the most lyrically malicious pop songs of the past decade. Terrible as it is, “Love Yourself” would be a top five song on Sheeran’s latest album “÷” (pronounced “divide), a tuneless, problematic slog that easily rates as both his worst album and one of the worst major pop releases in a long time.
Starting with the positive, “Shape Of You” is the best song Sheeran has ever put to record. Danceable yet typically low-key, the production grooves gently along a syncopated, plucked guitar line like a watered down version of a Major Lazer song. It was reportedly written for Rihanna, and you can imagine her giving silly lines like “I’m in love with the shape of you/We push and pull like a magnet do” the kind of sexy gravitas and confidence she’s so known for. As such, Sheeran has none of those attributes, and the whole enterprise feels mildly icky. His shift into falsetto when impersonating his female lover in the pre-chorus is one of several cringe-worthy moments on the record at large, yet overall, “Shape Of You” is the only song with any sort of forward momentum and contains several nice moments. The sonorous backing vocals in the latter half of the chorus are downright transporting, so ethereal and otherworldly that, for a brief moment, you can pretend you’re not listening to “÷.”
The rest of the album is dismal, filled with tracks that range from innocuous fluff to affronts against decency and taste. A common theme is Ed Sheeran’s female problems. Ed Sheeran does not like it when girls are not into him, and Ed Sheeran does not like any man who dates his exes. The gross “New Man” puts down one of these guys, jeering that “Your new man rents a house in the ‘burb/and wears a man bag on his shoulder but I call it a purse.” It’s bad enough that Sheeran feels the need to derisively feminize and domesticize his male “rival,” though it's much worse delivered in a snotty rap.
Sheeran loves to rap, but—shockingly—he’s not very good. He’s an adequate enough singer, especially in his soft lower register, yet his insistence upon spitting out every line in a clipped, monotone way further dulls the impact of arrangements that were already dead on arrival. The album opener, “Eraser,” is the worst rapping offense, a bloated account of his rise to fame punctuated with guitar work that sounds like that kid in your freshmen hall. The pettiness of “Eraser”’s narrative is borderline unlistenable, and several tracks on “÷”attack all of Sheeran’s perceived haters in ways that come off less as triumphant and more like bullying.
Even when he tries more sonically adventurous fare, Sheeran can’t help but get in his own way. “Galway Girl” is a morass of Irish-rock clichés over ‘NSync production; the best thing that can be said about it is that it’s over in under three minutes. The bouncy—for this album, at least—“Barcelona” is dampened by Sheeran’s excessively hoarse vocals, which sound like he’s dealing with a particularly nasty case of strep throat. It also contains Sheeran speaking in Spanish. Deluxe edition track “Bibia Be Ye Ye” is even more dubious and culturally appropriative. Its interpretation of Afro-pop has no real thought put into it, unlike similar works from Vampire Weekend and Paul Simon, and it lands with a thud in an album that has fifteen of them.
Indeed, “÷” has one good song out of sixteen(!) total, which makes for an unconscionably boring and long listening experience. Sheeran lacks a sense of pacing both within individual songs and within the album itself, taking too long to build to weak choruses. There are also far too many ballads, pretty enough yet tainted by his inability to write a solid hook or lyrics that don’t put down someone else or pander to audiences searching for “real” music.
On the U2 knockoff “Castle on the Hill,” Sheeran sings of the nostalgic past, “I was younger then/take me back to when.” I’ll take the paternalistic histrionics of “The A-Team” or the Marvin Gaye-aping schmaltziness of “Thinking Out Loud” any day over the sour, spoiled “÷.”