Sheeran follows his own formula with ‘Equals’

British pop artist Ed Sheeran has made a name for himself with heartfelt ballads and some of the most iconic love songs of his generation. His latest project, “=,” takes the same tack. // Photo courtesy of Dan Martensen

Our Take: 3 Stars

Ed Sheeran’s fourth solo album “=,” released on Oct. 29, is his first in four years.

After his “Divide” tour ended in 2019, Sheeran was unsure of his future in music. He had settled down and became a husband and a father. He wanted to commit time to his daughter and wife.

However, Sheeran told Sirius XM Radio that at some point, he realized that “It is more important for my daughter to grow up knowing that her parents have work ethic and her parents love working hard and love creating and enjoy their jobs, and seeing that rather than looking at your dad as technically unemployed.”

Sheeran started the promotion for “=” with singles “Bad Habits” and “Shivers,” which both dominated the charts, sitting at number one on the UK charts for a combined total of 15 weeks. These dance-pop anthems are reminiscent of the “÷” Sheeran: a singer and songwriter who has a pulse on the heartbeat of pop.

In contrast, the promotional single on “=,” “Visiting Hours” introduces the other more introspective, emotion-driven themes present in the album. What many critics call maturity, however, sounds more like “+” than ever. This album is a polished derivative of the sounds Sheeran had experimented with in “÷,” focused on the experiences that have dominated his life for the last few years. With its balance of pop with more mature themes of family and homemaking, Sheeran had aptly named the project “=.”

Sheeran starts the album by stating “I have grown up/I am a father now/Everything has changed/But I am still the same somehow,” on “Tides,” which is an apt description of the realm in which this album exists, nothing bad but nothing we haven’t heard before.

As much as one searches, it is hard to find a flaw in his album, but it is equally as hard to find an authentic genre-pushing pop song or the most introspective song.

Songs like “Bad Habits” and “Overpass Graffiti” clearly draw inspiration from the 80’s synth-pop that has recently made a resurgence thanks to artists like The Weeknd and Dua Lipa. But in comparison to these other artists, Sheeran’s songs feel void of identity. The content of the song follows Sheeran’s emotional formula without any adjustments for the 80’s instrumentals, which sound as if they were stripped straight from a-ha.

As a songwriter and new father, it was a requirement that Lyra, Sheeran’s daughter, would receive a lullaby. Though “Sandman” presents Sheeran’s raw vocals and emotions, in comparison to Billy Joel and Elton John, it feels like a cheap imitation piece. But just because it does not hold up in front of the best, does not mean it is bad.

“Joker and The Queen” presents Sheeran in his element, with beautiful storytelling and sad guitar sounds that are bound to be joining “Thinking Out Loud” and “Perfect” on every wedding tracklist. “Visiting Hours” and “Love In Slow Motion” round off the album with authentic, beautiful odes to Sheeran’s late friend and mentor Michael Gudinski and wife Cherry Seaborn.

Similar to “÷,” “=” has something for everybody but is better structured and more cohesive. It offers an entertaining listen, but chances are that it is not the album where you will find your next favorite Ed Sheeran song.