Sound — 6
Recently, Youtuber Phillip McKnight posted a video titled "Is Taylor Swift the next Eddie Van Halen?" Responses to the video were mixed, and many showed utter disgust at the idea, but for those who actually sat through the video and attempted to understand McKnight's angle on the topic, it actually makes a fair deal of sense. In a world where pop music is increasingly digitally created, with sequencers and synthesizers essentially replacing live musicians in the vast majority of today's most popular genres of music, the fact that many young people are crediting artists like Taylor Swift for starting them off on playing guitar, while speaking volumes of the lack of popularity of guitar music, does show that in some circles, the guitar is still very much alive.
Another artist to look into for this phenomenon is UK pop star Ed Sheeran. Starting on a much more folk-oriented path earlier on in his career, but quickly settled into the pop music paradigm, and even became a songwriter for other established acts as One Direction and Hilary Duff. But on his own work, the guitar has always retained a fairly large place in the sound.
But that sound? Well, it's every bit as calculated and airbrushed into perfection as any of his peers' music. As far as pop music goes, there's really nothing on display here that we haven't heard a million before. From acoustic-pop/rap tunes like the opener "Eraser" and the decidedly more electronic "Shape of You," to the Coldplay-esque strains of "Castle on the Hill," to Sheeran's attempt at apeing John Mayer on "Dive" (which features a guitar solo credited to an "Angelo Mysterioso," a pseudonym associated with Eric Clapton), these first four tracks pretty much outline exactly what you're in for through the whole album. None of the songs are particularly offensive, but are incredibly safe and slick. Scores of high school prom slow dances are likely to take place to "Perfect," while I wouldn't be surprised if "Galway Girl" became a massive radio hit with its very modern drum-machine beat and catchy chorus, complete with the sound of Irish flutes.
"Happier" is a slow, acoustic-led ballad, while "New Man" is just another sort of drum machine-buoyed pop track (though the mention of industrial band Ministry is a bit of a lyrical surprise). "Hearts Don't Break Around Here" and "What Do I Know" continue the track ordering of "ballad - upbeat pop song - ballad - upbeat pop song". Neither are particularly interesting in their own right. "How Would You Feel (Paean)" and "Supermarket Flowers," the final two tracks, finally break the methodology of the track ordering, closing the album on a pair of softer ballads. The former is another sort of John Mayer-esque track, featuring probably the most genuinely soulful performance on the album, along with another nice guitar solo actually played by Mayer himself. Ending the standard edition of the album, the latter track. The deluxe edition of the album features some more upbeat tracks like "Barcelona," "Bibia Be Ye Ye" and "Nancy Mulligan," which are alright tunes. Lastly is the piano-led track "Save Myself."
Aside from sporting some of the most calculated songwriting I can think of, the production on this album is hardly what I'd call intimate. Though the tracks as a whole seem to be far less digitally manipulated than the average pop album nowadays, it still sounds very surgical and sterile. It's almost like most of the performances, while clean and typically not all that tweaked in the studio, just sound very lifeless and without soul.
Lyrics — 7
It's all pretty basic fare for a pop singer these days: songs about puppy love, "rhyming moon with June," putting in some lyrics about how he actually despises fame and fortune to save face, songs about his rise to stardom and how everyone encouraged him to follow his dreams. It's the kind of thing that will definitely solidify his position at the top of the charts, and it is a very widely-appealing theme. There are a few songs that do have lyrics that are actually have a little more depth than typical pop-song fare, like the closing track "Supermarket Flowers," a song sung from Ed's mother's point of view as a sort of threnody to his deceased grandmother. "What Do I Know?" sports lyrics that likely hark to Ed's hiatus from social media, something he believed was causing him to "see the world through a screen" rather than through his own eyes, and warns not to get involved with "politics, religion or other peoples' quarrels," and instead let the music do the talking, and that we don't need money, fortune or fame to spread love. Pretty rich coming from a platinum-selling pop star, but I'll let that slide.
Overall, the lyrics are probably one of the better parts of the album, though. They're every bit as safe and calculated as the music, but it's at least a rather positive message, and a bit of a welcome departure from some of the dark, brooding lyrics I'm used to in my reviews of more heavy rock and metal artists. The vocals are also not that bad, not exactly all that rich or gravelly, but there's definitely a lot more soul in these vocals than the typical male pop artist these days. Sadly, it seems like it's all very airbrushed to perfection again, and while I can't say for certain whether there's a lot of pitch-correction, the harmonies are so perfect that I can't rule it out.
Overall Impression — 6
Leading back to my opening statement of this review, Ed Sheeran's music may not be the greatest thing out there. It's cold, calculated, and a little soulless and lifeless. Sometimes, the album gets a bit inconsistent, overproduced, and it relies way too heavily on the same kind of tropes that make modern pop music not the kind of music that most of us frequenting this site want to listen to. But, for the guitar, Ed Sheeran is doing something right. Just as Phillip McKnight opines that many of his new students were introduced to the instrument by Taylor Swift, I can only imagine that many of them are also getting into it from Ed Sheeran's music. And three albums in, he shows no signs of giving up the guitar as a vital and integral part of his sound, unlike a lot of pop artists, or rock artists who have gone pop (I mean, seriously, I have a hard time finding the guitars in Fall Out Boy's most recent works). Whether you like Ed's sound or not, I have to credit him for keeping the guitar alive, especially in the face of the modern pop music industry, where having live musicians performing on a track is often a mere afterthought.
As for the songs on the album? It's not even that there are any particularly awful tracks. None of these songs are explicitly bad, just incredibly safe, meaning that this record's songs (especially "Shape of You," which has already been a massive hit for Sheeran) will be radio staples for the months to come. This isn't a terrible record, but if you're not interested in modern pop music, this is not going to change your mind about the genre at all.