Ed Sheeran sacrifices sincerity for streams on “=”

Courtesy+of+POPSUGAR

Courtesy of POPSUGAR

Marybeth Stanziola , Columnist

From a shy, 20-year-old singer-songwriter to new parent and Grammy winner, Ed Sheeran’s journey – both personal and professional – has always been authentically documented through his music. The England native released the fourth entry into his ongoing string of mathematic-titled albums, “=”, in 2021, ten years after his 2011 debut, “+”. Sheeran’s discography coincides with the timeline of many Lakers’ lives, from the beginning of our adolescences well into our college careers. His debut’s introverted, awkwardly heartfelt lyrics resonated heavily with his then-younger fanbase.

Success and confidence brought change to Sheeran’s music, most notably a gradual switch from quiet folk to dance pop. Nowhere is this more evident than on his fifth studio album, which more often than not replaces his poetic lyricism and acoustic guitar with radio-friendly pop tracks. Despite having a few tender moments scattered throughout it, “=” feels more like an attempt to chase the success of “Shape of You” than a positive addition to his catalogue.

Marriage and his first-time experience with fatherhood carry the album’s narrative driven tracks, leaving behind many of the heavier topics Sheeran focused on his in his earlier work. “First Times” resembles the songwriting style longtime fans are familiar with; an airy, delicate recounting of the multiple “firsts” he and his wife have experienced together, from the time they met to his proposal. Sheeran’s whispery vocals and minimalist production style would sound at home on any of his earlier records, some much needed fan service.

Visiting Hours,” a heartbreaking dedication to a loved one who’s passed on, is a similar callback to his singer-songwriter roots. Lyrically intimate and stripped down, Sheeran’s vulnerability stands out on the otherwise shallow corporate-pop album.  

The resemblance to his previous work ends there: even the rap-infused “2step” lacks the self-aware wittiness of his previous songs written in the same vein. His decision to market towards the general public through formulaic blandness is what ultimately bogs “=”down.

Unfortunately for Sheeran, the stark contrast between the album’s acoustic ballads and commercialized pop songs creates a disjointed record—leaving what used to be his trademark style sounding misplaced on the track list.  

The resounding success of 2017’s “Shape of You” altered the singer’s style as a whole, exemplified on the album’s singles. “Bad Habits” and “Shivers” both lack depth and cleverness, instead opting for generic lovelorn lyrics that carry little to no weight. The digitalized production style sounds foreign when paired alongside Sheeran’s naturally soft vocals.  

The overall upbeat tone of the record could, on a surface level, be attributed to Sheeran’s positive life changes since his last album release in 2017. However, the shift in genre comes across as a prioritization of streams rather than a sincere artistic evolution.

While harmless at its core, “=” presents itself as a sell-out project compared to the earlier albums in the series. Its pop-to-acoustic ratio results in a record where both aspects feel equally out of place, leaving longtime fans feeling forgotten and unsatisfied.