In 2011, Sheeran’s debut + (“plus”) introduced us to the singularly affecting wizardry of the Englishman‘s songwriting nous with six smash singles (including massive debut single The A Team).
In 2014 we got x (“multiply”); its gob-smackingly popular single Thinking Out Loud earned the crown of Ed‘s biggest hit… until 2017, when Shape Of You, the lead single from third album ÷ (“divide”), shattered records all over the shop.
Now we come to = (“equals”), and it makes perfect sense for Ed to tackle this symbol at this particular stage of his life‘s journey. It‘s been 10 years since his debut record, and Sheeran is now 30 years old, having spent the entirety of his 20s in the international spotlight. He‘s seen loss, experienced love, and even welcomed a baby into the world via a fairytale romance.
And it’s that romantic ally – Ed’s wife Cherry Seaborn, whom he famously met in high school; the two fell out of touch before reconnecting in 2015 and tying the knot in 2019 – whose presence curls around =‘s melodies. The pair‘s deep connection makes you realise that the album‘s title has another meaning, aside from its mathematical one:
Seaborn and Sheeran are equals.
The sentiment is all over this collection of affecting songs, which – though they push more than a few envelopes in terms of Ed’s stylistic tradition – are all utterly Sheeran. In chronological order of the tracklist, here are our favourite gems from =, out now.
Ed isn’t mucking about, opening the album with one of its top three belters. Tides features a heartbeat-thumping 4/4 piano and heaving acoustic guitar, and also introduces a stylistic twist Sheeran uses often across the album to awesome effect: in the chorus, he suddenly pulls out all of the instruments except for voice. Normally we‘d expect a chorus to be the biggest, juiciest part of the track – the culmination of the verses’ builds – but Ed gets to play with the rules.
“Time starts to still/ When you are in my arms, it always will,” he croons, with harmonies layered like spanikopita. In subject matter, Tides‘ frank reflections aren‘t unlike the opening track of another of the year‘s top-tier pop releases: Getting Older, from Billie Eilish‘s Happier Than Ever.
Here‘s the first heart-shredding love song of the album, clearly directed with the utmost candour to Ed‘s wife Cherry. It‘s woven through with the life-observations Sheeran is known for; he contemplates his first time playing London‘s Wembley Stadium – “80 thousand singing with me/ This is the dream” – then moves to the quiet moments backstage after the show‘s over… noting the way it‘s these moments of repose, in fact, that “make a man.”
“I remember the first kiss, the first night, the first song that made you cry,” Ed sings, following up with a corker of a couplet: “The greatest thing that I have achieved/ Is four little words, down on one knee.”
Funnily enough, this track feels a bit like the first time you ever heard an Ed Sheeran song – a beaut closing of the circle.
THE JOKER AND THE QUEEN
Ed deals a winning hand with an extended playing card metaphor, within this ‘less is more’ ballad – which, for most of its length, comprises of simply his voice and piano – but you‘ll want to hang around for its closing bars. The analogy of suits and court cards (or ‘face cards‘) tells the tale of a romance between the titular characters. “When I fold, you see the best in me,” Ed sings, then riffs on the mirrored design of the Joker card in the line, “I was upside down from the outside in/ You came to the table, and you went all in.”
Towards the track‘s conclusion we get some acoustic guitar into the mix, and then it‘s on with a stop-you-in-yer-tracks string orchestra, reaching Percy Faith levels of beauty in its delivery.
LEAVE YOUR LIFE
Leave Your Life‘s beat alone deserves a Ted Talk; it‘s a chopped-up and snapped-together rhythm of breaths and “ck” sounds, and there‘s something very intimate about it, despite the fact it‘s done artificially (unlike live beatbox).
“I‘m never gonna leave your life,” Ed asserts across acoustic guitar plucking, while reverse harmonium chords swoop in and then pop out of existence with abrupt cracks. In its closing ad-libbed moments, Sheeran comes very close to sounding like King of Pop Michael Jackson in the way he lets that super-emotional serrated edge come into his belted notes.
Beautifully textured yet sparse, this one‘s a gorgeous piece of percussive pop.
The warmth of the velveteen synths on this up-tempo, syncopated gem is all-time – think Springsteen‘s Streets of Philadelphia – and its auxiliary percussion (tambourine, shaker, cabasa) elevate it to a sunny plane. Sheeran details a sackful of memories he‘s made with the woman who “bring[s him] to life”: Drinking her father‘s whisky at her grandma‘s wake, visiting an Irish bar in Rome, missing out on the Northern Lights because they slept in, making love on a plane, and the time she lost her wedding ring. “Head-first colliding/ Dreamers colliding/ Universe colliding,” goes the final, divine refrain.
LOVE IN SLOW MOTION
The ultimate romantic mea culpa, Love In Slow Motion goes into the ways that, within our intimate relationships, “we commit to so many things, but not to ourselves.” The classic ¾ waltz rhythm (best friend of love-tragics across time and space) is the perfect backdrop for some of Ed‘s most earnest lyrics out: “Baby let‘s slow down time/ Baby let‘s press rewind… I need to change my perspective and prioritise… I apologise.”
“I finished writing this song going through proper grief for the first time,” Sheeran wrote on Instagram when he released this track as a single in August this year. But we had, of course, heard the song before: Ed performed it live (stopping once or twice when emotion overtook him) at the state memorial for the late, great Michael Gudinski. In its recorded iteration, the fragility of its sentiment seeps through every note, and you can hear the voices of two of our homegrown icons – Kylie Minogue and Jimmy Barnes, with whom Ed shared the state at the conclusion of Gudinski‘s memorial – in the Greek chorus-esque backing layers.
And finally: the devoted, starry-eyed father makes his appearance. Ukulele, glockenspiel, xylophone, plucked violins and adorable piccolo pitter-patter all over this incredible tribute to Sheeran‘s baby daughter Lyra Antarctica Seaborn Sheeran, now four months old. What‘s remarkable about this track is the way Sheeran has used all the elements you‘d normally find in kids‘ music (the cutesy mallet percussion, the simple melodies) and created something that works from an adult‘s perspective. “You were loved before you arrived/ And every day that love just multiplies,” he sings, and here comes the couplet of unconditional adoration that‘ll rip your wee heart out: “Fall into the world of your song/ Whatever you feel could never be wrong.”
= by Ed Sheeran is out now via Warner. It‘s available on CD, regular black vinyl, and JB-exclusive white vinyl (pictured above).
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