ARTIST: Ed Sheeran
Album release date: March 3, 2017
He’s Done His Homework
What do the Tin Man and Ed Sheeran’s latest have in common?
They’re both animated; but neither of them has a heart.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that, to the Tin Man’s credit, he, at least, didn’t exploit his own unconventionality and dweebishness as a ploy to trick folks into thinking he was bereft of hubris – just a regular old Joe facin’ the grind and living in castles. One can’t say the same of Sheeran, whose latest album – released after a three year recording hiatus – hardly makes an effort to disguise the commercialism beneath its sentimental, high-gloss accoutrement.
The album is entitled Divide, denoted simply by the mathematical symbol set against a splashy blue backdrop (interviewers have been cued to ask Sheeran about the cover: “You painted it yourself, right? Inspiring! How did you do it?” “I just dumped a bunch of paint everywhere,” he responds with controlled modesty. The interviewers nod reverently). It consists of 16 songs, a mixture of pop-rap-balladry. Here and there you’ll hear something reminiscent of a bygone era or another, more exotic culture, but for the most part the songs stick to an unflaggingly pre-teen pop palate.
Cream of Wheat, Anyone?
To that point, Sheeran writes almost exclusively about relationships, boozy nights out on the town, and “love, understanding, positivity.” His lyrics feel like they were penned specifically for the attention-hungry hearts of tweenage girls – much like Nicholas Sparks writes novels to titillate the minds and wallets of resentful, bored housewives (an unthinkable accusation – cue the volley of Pyrex to be rained down upon my head – but brands run on business, and business calculates). His concept of the opposite sex is uninspired, unrealistic, and offensive: the women in his songs are phantoms of wood-smoke scented, beer-breathed male delight. In one song, Galway Girl, he sings his praises of a woman who beats him at darts, drinks him under the table, and plays fiddle; and then in the tune New Man scolds another woman for betraying her true self – the self who used to eat potato chips by the waterside – for a vapid version who eats kale and dates a guy who plucks his eyebrows and carries a man purse. “I’m in love with your body,” he sings, repeatedly, in The Shape of You, while an irresistible beat hooks and sways beneath. Dante Alighieri, he is not. Edward Bernays, he pretty much is.
A couple of songs – Eraser and Supermarket Flowers – have the feeling of something more honest. Eraser, the opener, is a rumination on the pressures of fame – and how Sheeran turns to distraction (and maybe some specific vice – it’s not clear) to numb the unpleasant feelings of disappointment that surround him personally and externally. “I look in the mirror questioning what I’ve become. I guess it’s a stereotypical day for someone like me. Without a nine to five job or a uni degree. To be caught up in the trappings of the industry,” he raps, obliquely begging pardon for the pandering music that awaits the listener – whilst simultaneously washing his hands of it and pointing out his plight as someone who never went to university (a card he pulls frequently in his music: “I’m normal and didn’t get as much of a chance as most people.” This is hard to be sympathetic toward, considering his multi-millionaire status). The other song that grasps at a tougher subject is Supermarket Flowers, which he wrote after his grandmother’s passing. But – at the risk of sounding insensitive – this song, too, smacks of sentimentality, as Sheeran rolls out a slew of exhausted motifs. Lines such as “Spread your wings as you go, when God takes you back he’ll say, ‘Hallelujah you’re home,'” are an attempt toward genuine affectivity, most likely; but they miss the mark thanks to the invisibility of Sheeran himself throughout the album.
The Problem with Equation-Based “Music”
If I sound like I’m picking on Ed Sheeran, that’s because I am. I’m picking on him because he himself has made a public statement that this album was written, produced and released with an eye to outsell Adele. “She’s the one person whose sold more records than me in the last ten years. She’s the only person I need to sell more records than.” I’m picking on him because he’s another cog in the wheel of commercialism, body-obsession, chauvinism and relativism – and he’s oiling the wheel as he goes without compunction. I’m picking on him because he lacks the courage to take a stance on any hard issues – he’s honed his image as an simple every-man who’d rather go pubbing and talk about “peace, love, and positivity” than have an opinion about anything, because – as he sings in refrain of one of the songs, “What do I know?”
I’m picking on him because he epitomizes a malady that began in our culture and is making its way steadily across the globe: the neutering of art, the gutting of meaning, in the name of Money. There is good pop music out there, pop music that actually means something, pop music that actually tries to reciprocate and make a difference (think Man in the Mirror, I’ll Be There, Cat’s in the Cradle, or anything by Joni Mitchell in her pop phase). And then there’s this kind of pop, the kind that’s designed with Snapchat overdubs in mind, the kind that seeks to be hash-tagged through the stratosphere of Singledom and very often gets exactly what it wants thanks to the double-tapping thumbs of its sadly misinformed target audience.
Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, et al: these fake-nice, fake-friend celebrities are brands. They’re mergers, Empires, replacement deities. What you see and hear is a curated confection. I feel sorry for anyone in their shoes, because hiding one’s own heart beneath so much smoke and mirrors is bound to be suffocating: there’s no way of telling exactly how much control they themselves have over their creative output, or if they’re actually even pleased to be celebrities. But I don’t feel sorry enough for them not to feel pissed that they keep adding to the mire of a nation that’s steadily losing its sense of imagination and reverence.