‘=’ is bland, underwhelming

Album continues Ed Sheeran’s use of cliche lyrics and themes

Sometimes, an album deserves to be judged by its cover. While I had hopes Ed Sheeran would take his music in a new, fresh direction, “=” is equally disappointing as his older work.

My past feelings towards Ed Sheeran have ranged from ambivalence to dislike. Though Sheeran’s music is generally inoffensive, most of my exposure to him came from corny pop songs like “Galway Girl,” or condescending ballads like “Perfect.” His past work, which managed to gain popularity without providing any substance or innovation, did nothing to distinguish him from the glut of commercialized pop present in the music industry today.

However, my expectations regarding the album were temporarily proven wrong by the first track, “Tides.” The introspective lyrics describe how Sheeran’s family protected him from the dark side of fame and success, over a charmingly clangy guitar instrumental. Although the chorus feels a little trite and out of place, it is an overall promising start.

Sheeran falls flat: ‘=’ lacks innovation, sincerity (Photo courtesy of Vanessa Jetwash)

Unfortunately, Sheeran follows this up with a string of underwhelming and tasteless pop ballads. “Bad Habits” is especially frustrating, as it feels thematically out of place with the rest of the album. In this song, Sheeran tries and fails to present himself as a “bad boy” who obsesses over mysterious women, despite his prior emphasis on family. 

Sheeran somewhat recovered from this, delivering a couple of intriguing performances. I was especially drawn in by “The Joker and the Queen,” as I enjoyed the clever wordplay and minimalist production, and connected with the vulnerable tone used. Another not-so-disappointing one was “Collide.” It features a bouncy instrumental, captivating refrain, and hopeful lyrics. It touched on topics such as love and youth without being cliche. 

After “Collide,” the album rapidly descends into mediocrity. None of the last few songs are memorable, interesting or thought out — they more or less blend together. For instance, “2step” features Sheeran doing his best Drake impression, dispassionately delivering generic lyrics about love over a hip hop beat. Additionally, “Sandman,” written for Sheeran’s infant daughter, features a disgustingly corny guitar instrumental.

I would have appreciated it if Sheeran got more personal with this album, discussing his mental state and undoubtedly hectic lifestyle. Instead, he tries to invent new personalities for himself to appear “relatable,” shying away from discussing anything meaningful. 

“=,” much like Sheeran’s previous discography, does not deserve much positive attention. Although you may undoubtedly hear it played again and again on the radio, in reality, it does not warrant a second listen.