“Divide” and Conquer

ed sheeran wants to rule the world

Last year, ahead of the release of Adele’s latest album 25, I wrote a piece explaining how her previous effort 21 was, by the numbers, arguably the biggest album of all time in terms of sales and how inimitable all of her success had become. There is one artist, however, who fancies himself as Adele’s competitor: Ed Sheeran. In late January, Sheeran stated in an interview, “Adele is the one person who’s sold more records than me in the past 10 years. She’s the only person I need to sell more records than.” He later went on to specify that such a feat would be incredibly difficult but that a goal post any lower than Adele’s chart-history-defining commercial success would be “selling [himself] short.”

Nevermind the fact that numerous artists have outsold Sheeran in the past 10 years, artists ranging from Eminem to Taylor Swift; the notion that he can outsell Adele is certainly a bold one, even if he’s enjoying success at the moment. I don’t mean to downplay his success, though: Sheeran’s latest album Divide (stylized as ÷) dropped on Friday and sold 230,000 copies on the first day in the U.K. alone, and he is likely to cement himself in the top 10 biggest debuts in his home country. In the United States, Billboard has a conservative projection of sales upwards of 325,000. But to compare this to Adele, who holds the records for biggest debut weeks in both countries, is still ludicrous: 800,000 copies sold in the U.K. and a whopping 3.38 million in the United States. Of course, these debuts are the biggest of all time. It’s Adele, after all.

Sheeran’s appeal as an artist is contingent not only on his ability to craft seemingly heartfelt and authentic songs, but also on his likeability as a person. Lately, however, he seems to have developed a bit of an ego. Another interview from late January showcases Sheeran blithely stating that he’s happy that there are so many popular singer-songwriters nowadays “even if they copy every single thing [he’s] done,” a statement that’s a tad ridiculous considering how little of his work can be construed as original or innovative. While he may have a point that other artists of his caliber take influence from him—Shawn Mendes ended his set at my stop of the 1989 tour with a cover of “Thinking Out Loud”—Sheeran seems to be equally guilty of taking inspiration from others. “Shape of You,” for instance, sounds like a diluted version of Sia’s “Cheap Thrills”. Besides, Mendes got to the trop-pop nice-guy anthem first, with his snivelling hit single “Treat You Better” last year.

Questions of originality aside, “Shape of You” is an expertly crafted pop song, and its chart success speaks to that effect. However, it does not necessarily make “Shape of You” a good song, considering Sheeran somehow finds it noteworthy that he’d “rather be picking up girls from the bar” and where the odor of a hook-up on your bedsheets is somehow construed as endearing. The song has all the attributes of a generic pop song: references to the radio, references to how horny the protagonist is, references to drinking, a bridge that consists of five words repeated ad nauseum. I don’t believe it’s the kind of song Sheeran would make if he were intent on creating a good song; it’s the kind of song Sheeran would make if he were intent on chart dominance.

Divide is full of these moments. “Castle on the Hill,” released at the same time as “Shape of You,” uses specific details from Sheeran’s childhood and an acoustic sound to create an illusion of authenticity. But its lyrics are still awkward and stumbling, and its reliance on nostalgia as a driving factor is made all the weaker by the popularity of other popular, nostalgia-heavy songs (see: “Closer,” “Paris, “7 Years”). This commentary on Sheeran’s play on authenticity isn’t meant to imply that Sheeran himself isn’t authentic, at least in this song. Rather, it means to suggest that as a marketable individual, Sheeran relies on these overt cues in order to gain the general public’s adoration. His performance at the Grammys showcased him toying with recording gear to generate a backing track live; the audience at home, I’m sure, marvelled at his ability to use basic studio equipment. The artists who sell the most tend to be ones the general public assume to be authentic (see: Adele, once again), and Sheeran seems acutely aware of this factor.

Several songs feel like assignments from a music composition course. Make an acoustic version of Shakira’s “Waka Waka”: Ed Sheeran makes “Bibia Be Ye Ye.” Compose an Irish jig: Sheeran responds with “Galway Girl.” Release a horrendously whitewashed take on hip hop music: Sheeran enthusiastically unleashes “Eraser” upon the world. Incorporating a smorgasbord of genres isn’t necessarily a bad thing (Beyonce’s Lemonade did it to great effect), but Sheeran fails to engage with these genres in meaningful ways. It feels gimmicky, like he’s using them to showcase his apparent versatility instead of focusing on crafting actual unique, complex music.

Adele, in the weeks leading up to the release of “Hello,” would say in interviews that everything she’d ever release would be compared to the success of 21 and that she wasn’t really interested in the numbers anymore. Sheeran’s main fault in Divide is his focus on attaining commercial success at the expense of his actual music. While albums can be both excellent and commercial smashes, they tend to be remembered down the line for the former, not the latter. I don’t doubt that the majority of popular artists concern themselves with their numbers, but for all the talk Sheeran does about the charts, he should try to back it up with quality work as well.