Pop music is at war.
The battlefield is artistic evolution. On one side is the belief that pop artists should constantly change, either sonically, lyrically, or visually. The opposing side argues that artists should stick with what made them successful, never changing too much to become inauthentic. Every prominent mainstream musician has had to decide where they land. Billie Eilish unveiled a new glamorous look for her sophomore album Happier Than Ever. Taylor Swift shifted from pure pop to indie with last year’s dual releases folklore and evermore. Adele once again shook the world with “Easy on Me,” sticking with the soulful adult contemporary that turned her into a genuine phenomenon. “My Universe,” Coldplay’s recent collaboration with K-pop sensation BTS, is either advantageous or wildly cynical, depending on how generous you want to be. Despite being a huge commercial success, critics have knocked Drake’s Certified Lover Boy for sticking with the same themes.
Ed Sheeran sits in the middle of the road. Originally an acoustic indie darling, Sheeran has morphed into a pop music factory that efficiently churns out hit after hit. His music output is remarkable in its strict adherence to mainstream tastes and intensely specific personality. He can do tropical house (“Shape of You”), hip-pop (“Cross Me”), AC balladry (“Thinking Out Loud”), and anthemic rock (“Castle on the Hill”) and still play the persona of the homely every guy strumming his guitar, absolutely chuffed when a girl looks his way. How convincing he is can vary, the nadir being No. 6 Collaborations Project, the most shameless streaming-ready construct this side of Drake. Critical reception aside, Sheeran’s approach has been wildly successful, evidenced by his recent 15-week stint at #1 in the UK.
Sheeran is as pop-savvy as ever on his latest studio album ‘=,’ but he is more focused and perhaps more compelling than he’s been since x. Sheeran got married and had a daughter during his hiatus, and his immense gratitude for both form the album’s emotional core. He’s still that pub-crawling, metaphor-slinging everyman of albums old, but he’s a bit more contemplative, a sliver more self-aware, and a lot less smarmy and jaded. He’s traded in the chip on his shoulder for mature emotion, felt at its highest levels, of course. Sheeran embraces the changes that marriage and fatherhood have brought him on the raucous, Springsteen-referencing opening track “Tides.” On “Love in Slow Motion,” he resolves to put his lover first after letting his fast-paced career take precedent. In a significant shift, he takes the high road when reflecting a past love on the new wave-inspired standout “Overpass Graffiti.” Even the album’s most poignant moment, “Visiting Hours,” is colored by tender remembrance rather than grief.
The album’s optimism and unbridled romance could’ve easily gotten stale, but Sheeran’s expansive pop palette keeps the tracklist relatively varied. The tight thematic throughline reigns in his worst Top 40 impulses, allowing him to produce an album that doesn’t quite sound like he reverse-engineered it for Spotify’s “Today’s Top Hits” playlist. The ’80s is the most prominent and successful inspiration, shaping many of ‘=’s’ best tracks: “Tides,” “Overpass Graffiti,” and the excellent left-field single “Bad Habits.” Sheeran’s embrace of brighter, club-ready soundscapes – on songs like “Shivers” and the shimmering closer “Be Right Now” – is the most welcome surprise on the album, given that it isn’t the sound of the moment. Blessedly, there are very few blatant stabs at Top 40 relevance; the closest is the rapid-fire “2step,” a decent track that sounds like a leftover from his recording sessions with Justin Bieber. Even the album’s filler, like “Stop the Rain” or “Collide,” leave a positive impression.
Sheeran’s most mixed results come from the album’s ballad selection, which doesn’t deviate much from his standard formula. “Love in Slow Motion” is lovely, but the waltzing pace is so familiar that it nearly robs the song of its own identity. “First Times” is an especially egregious rehash of “Thinking Out Loud” and “Perfect” that he could’ve left off the tracklist, and it wouldn’t be missed. The best ballad is “The Joker and the Queen,” an achingly tender stunner that wedding planners will flock to in the coming months. The tear-jerker “Visiting Hours,” dedicated to a recently deceased friend, is equally impactful.
In the war of artistic evolution, Ed Sheeran’s strategy is to stick with what’s worked in the past – romantic ballads and self-effacing on-trend pop – but deploy it with more discerning taste and maturity. He isn’t taking risks, nor is he stagnant. You would think that straddling the fence on, well, straddling the fence of pop music would prove to be problematic. And yet, ‘=’ is Sheeran’s most immediate and enjoyable album in years.
Does he make a case for either a more liberal or conservative approach to pop music? Not quite: Sheeran has a clearly-defined and relatable musical identity with certain luxuries that others (except Adele and Swift) can’t afford. Like always, Sheeran sits squarely in the middle, absorbing and shaping the pop landscape around him. It’s not the most innovative position, but you cannot deny its power, try as you might.