Whatever you think of Ed Sheeran, it’s difficult to argue when you see his staggering record sales. Needless to say, he’s one of the most popular singer songwriters on planet Earth. If you’re not a fan of his music though, you probably won’t be too happy with his ever-increasing cameos in films or regular TV appearances – the man’s everywhere, with his role in the 2019 Richard Curtis/Danny Boyle film about the forgotten Beatles – Yesterday – his biggest casting to date.
For fourth album =, he continues both his liking for mathematical symbols and his winning formula – it’s basically more of the same. This time, his inspirations include death and the love for his wife Cherry as well as celebrating fatherhood following the birth of a first child, daughter Lyra, and the album comes out barely a week after he tested positive for covid-19. So, as ever, it’s all go in the Sheeran household.
Perfectly pristine production is stamped all over = and you wouldn’t expect anything else from a global superstar (production credits themselves are something of a rollcall, as always). And although there are the aforementioned inspirations afoot, it’s the abundant emotion of love that dominates at every turn.
Often drowning in its own soppy sweetness, = moves from one nauseating cliché to another, so brace yourselves if overly sickly, loved-up declarations are not your thing. “I never thought that I could love this hard” (Shivers), “The greatest thing that I have ever achieved is four little words down on one knee” (First Times) and “You bring me to life” (Collide) are but three of many, many such mutterings of besotted devotion on show – and at times it becomes so personal you really do feel like you’re listening into something that should only be for his wife’s ears.
The joys of becoming a father aren’t too far behind either. Opener Tides dives straight in just so everyone knows his good news (“I am a father now”, “I have a child” and “life is changing”) whilst the playful Sandman sounds like a nursery rhyme as Sheeran tells of how his wife built the mobile in the sky. And Visiting Hours probably represents the most obvious reference to death as he yearns for the advice of someone no longer with us – all rather corny despite being melodically impressive as usual.
Glitzy closer Be Right Now – an upbeat, ’80s disco effort is one of the best tracks on the collection, notably breaking free from the love-heavy odes of earlier. Bad Habits is easily the pick of the bunch even if it does sound a little like one of the best Eurovision entries of the last 20 years or so – not that it would have had an awful lot of competition if it had been released as such (even though we all know the political farce of the show would have prevented it from doing particularly well).
So, as expected, everything is, erm, as expected. If you’re a fan, you’ll still be a fan and if you’re not, you still won’t be. Whilst there is an undeniable continuation of his uncanny ability to write songs that will prevent his popularity from being damaged, his predictability is evident in not only album content but album names – odds on album five being called -, anyone?