Ed Sheeran got married, but audiences are barely engaged on ‘=’

Cover of Ed Sheeran's new album =
Atlantic Records UK/Courtesy

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Grade: 2.0/5.0

Imagine listening to Ed Sheeran sing his wedding vows. For 48 minutes.

That’s what Sheeran’s latest album is like — and as is the case at most weddings, you’ll need to be at least a little drunk to have a good time.

Because everyone adores math, the pop singer-songwriter named his fourth solo studio record =, following his discography’s titular pattern after 2011’s +, 2014’s X (which nearly no one knew was Multiply at first) and 2017’s . The symbol represents “the end of a question and the start of an answer” to Sheeran, but his album prompts more inquiries than solutions. Unimaginatively plugging different numbers into the same equation, = is formulaic to a tee.

Despite his unquestionable talent, Sheeran’s creativity only sporadically glimmers through on =. The album acts as a breeding ground for “Perfect” and “Shape of You” offspring: Inspired but also overwhelmed by his profound love for his wife, Sheeran too often presents romance in the forms of mawkish stripped guitar ballads or brazen sexual euphemisms. He touches on fatherhood, loss and more complex manifestations of love here and there, but he tends to shy away from unhackneyed territory and disappointingly sticks to truisms. Sheeran might be on his honeymoon, but few of his songs are landing.

Immediately opening the album with brash drums and piano, “Tides” demands attention instead of warranting it. To give it credit, however, the track does take production risks — its tumultuous instrumentals abruptly stop at the pre-chorus, spotlighting Sheeran’s contemplation about how love anchors him amid chaos. Yet Sheeran quickly gets swept up trying to relay life’s “changin’ tides” on =, finding himself stranded at sea.

His repetitive sequels to “Perfect” manage to breed brief moments of honest intimacy, yet the overwhelming swarm of prickly “Shape of You” carbon copies chips away at any authenticity. In theme with its vampiric music video, “Bad Habits” slowly sucks the will to live out of listeners, and “Shivers” is about as erotic as Mark Zuckerberg narrating an advertisement — and sadly, because both follow the blueprint for chart-climbers, these tracks are destined (no, designed) to circulate on the radio for the next 60 years. Even the Andrew Watt-produced “2step” doesn’t quite hit its mark, though the return of Sheeran’s characteristic rap-style flow is refreshing on this ballad-heavy record.

To be successful in the modern pop scene, artists must contort traditional formulas into something both irresistibly new and comfortably familiar. Yet, like with his album titles, Sheeran embraces formulas wholeheartedly on =. He takes few risks, calmly following radio hit recipes while his ingenuity burns in the oven.

So it’s no wonder so many of Sheeran’s songs go up in smoke. Honest but cloying, “Love in Slow Motion” and “Leave Your Life” personify Hallmark movies, and the chorus of “Collide” might as well play during a dry makeout scene in the After trilogy. While lyrics such as “fill up your bag and I fill up a plate” and “he wears sunglasses indoors, in winter, at nighttime” are far from Grammy-worthy, they do hold an unusually distinctive charm. By contrast, many of Sheeran’s storytelling attempts on =, such as “We’ve shared a toothbrush and shared our home” or “I wanna love tonight/ One on one by the candlelight,” could be written on wooden live, love, laugh signs decorated with seashells and martinis.

But gingers do have souls, and = does have a few saving graces. “First Times,” though uncomfortably sandwiched between “Bad Habits” and “Shivers,” serves as a wholesome, romantic sequel to “Perfect” with its swelling strings and gentle guitar. Dedicated to the late music executive Michael Gudinski, “Visiting Hours” tugs at heartstrings as a poignant, heavenly highlight. On the candid, timid track “The Joker and the Queen,” Sheeran’s voice quiets to a whisper that is as fragile as a house of cards. Here, though he sometimes sounds more unconfident than sentimental, the strength of his songwriting finally sees the light of day.

Ironically, these momentary highlights also draw attention to how imbalanced = is. Regrettably his least engaging work yet, Sheeran’s fourth studio record flounders due to its overall underwhelming lyricism paired with overproduction. Sheeran aimed for the extravagance of a wedding, but all he ended up with was the boredom of a four-hour rehearsal dinner.

Taila Lee is a deputy arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].