Ed Sheeran eh! What a phenomenon. He comes across as the ginger haired boy next door with a skateboard over one shoulder and a rickety guitar over the other. Yet, he can hold a stadium in the palm of his hand, with just that guitar and is selling units of product that only Adele or Taylor Swift can compete with. Ed Sheeran eh!
So, I am not sure whether it is a confession that I haven’t taken Sheeran seriously until now or that it is a confession that I am listening to him at all. Sheeran sits on the very thin edge between cool and pop. He sells too many units to be cool, has toured with Taylor Swift and written a song with Justin Bieber for goodness sake!
Yet, eventually as I have been exposed to his songs over and over again something is beginning to tell me that this boy can write songs… and I am drawn to the craft of a song. So, this last weekend on two car journeys I listened to Divide right through with my daughters, at least twice. What did I make of that?
Well, I was very impressed. The first thing to strike me was Sheeran’s versatility. Few other artists dare to throw their canvass this wide! Yes, we have those rhythm ‘n rap songs that I thought was Sheeran’s default and don’t sound easy in my 55 year old ears. But there is so much more. Of course, as well as the rap there are the Sheeran ballads. How Would You Feel is a stone wall classic, right off the mark!
Then there is that single apparently written for Rhianna, Shape Of You. It is all popped up and the lyrics seem more scantily dressed pop chic than ginger haired busker. I can kind of understand why he kept it to himself but I am not quite convinced.
Beyond rap, ballad and pop there is Irish trad and African rhythms; these are the most surprising. I didn’t see that coming! Of the two Irish songs Galway Girl is a little contrived, though it will be an absolute feet stomping live favourite. Nancy Mulligan works better for me. It takes the traditional Irish ballad form of story telling, brings it into his own family’s story of a Protestant Grandfather and Catholic Grandmother and suggests the orange and green can come together after all. Hopeful message after the election we have just had!
As someone who travels a lot to Africa, and loves Paul Simon’s Graceland, my ears pricked up at the Ghanaian guitar rhythms of of Bibia Be Ye Ye. Like Vampire Weekend the sound sends a smile right through you and seems to bring the sun out instantly. However, I am not sure Sheeran does the African rhythms the justice with his lyrics that Paul Simon did.
It is well known that Sheeran took a lot of time off between his last two records, to get away from the pressure of the fame. Divide does sound like the record of a man who has been pondering, surmising, finding himself and asking questions about life and love.
There’s even a little spiritual surmising going in here! He admits to starting to sing in Church. He’s aware of and resisting the devil’s temptation on Eraser. He’s aware that his songwriting gift and stage are God given on What Do I Know? Supermarket Flowers (about his Gran not his mum) is a song of belief in the eternal could be sung, and no doubt will be, at Church funerals and is perhaps his best melody and most emotional success on the record. It is one of the songs that cuts deepest for me having lost my mother recently.
I am also drawn to Castle On The Hill for its reminiscing on teenage years. I found myself wondering what my castle was and who I was with. What Do I Know in its belief in music changing the world suggested a little of the 60s optimism is still alive in 21st Century pop. Right up my Songs for a Healthy Soul blog category alley!
All in all, Divide is a very good record. With the likes of Northern Ireland’s Jonny McDaid and Foy Vance weighing in on the writing credits how could it not be! Indeed he puts van Morrison on the jukebox on two different songs (Shape Of You and Galway Girl) and name checks Belfast as his Grandfather's hope city (Nancy Mulligan). It almost seems that Ed Sheeran wishes he was from our wee country!
In 2017 Sheeran is covering a lot of musical bases for my daughters. When I started listening to music in the early seventies we had Donny Osmond and David Cassidy covering the teenage pop thing, James Taylor doing the acoustic troubadour thing and then Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell were the songwriters of deep introspection. Sheehan it seems is having to wrap them all up into one.
Divide is more than a good attempt at that! That is my confession!