÷ (or “divide”) is the studio third album by Ed Sheeran- which follows his two previous, (similarly mathematically named) albums, + (2011) and x (2014). The album was released on the 3rd March 2017 through Atlantic Records and Asylum Records, following Sheeran’s 2016 social media free ‘hiatus’, having toured extensively with his second album throughout 2014/15, which included three sold out nights at Wembley Stadium. He hasn’t really been ‘away’, as such. He’s been dominating the charts with songs you probably wouldn’t know that he’s written, for example Justin Bieber’s ‘Love Yourself’, whilst still finding time to write and record his own songs. Sheeran returned with lead singles ‘Castle on the Hill’ and ‘Shape of You’ in January 2017. Both songs were released on the 6th January 2017.
The album has already started racking up huge statistics. The album is the fastest selling male album of all time (with around 670,000 copies sold in the first week of release), received the highest number of album streams in a week ever (over 79k, which beat Stormzy’s record, which was set the week before), is the third fastest selling album ever (only beaten by Adele’s 25 and Oasis’ Be Here Now), boosted the entire vinyl industry (with the most one week sales in over 20 years) and made Sheeran the first artist to have every song from their album in the Official Singles Top 20 (yep, every single one…) All 16 tracks took up the first 16 spots of the chart- and that includes the bonus tracks.
The album itself is brilliant. It’s an album which has something for everyone and appeals to the masses, not only for being a brilliant pop record, but also for being an excellently crafted album with an undeniably welcome mix of song. Sheeran isn’t inexperienced. He knows what he’s doing.
The album opens up with ‘Eraser’, where Sheeran raps over simple acoustic guitar. The lyrics are clever and witty. It switches between melodic chorus’ and quick, syncopated percussion beats overlaid with rap. It’s bold and edgy, especially as an opener. It feels honest and clean, confessional almost, as if we’re about to be allowed an intimate insight into the last year of Sheeran’s life.
The second track on the album is ‘Castle on the Hill’. ‘Castle on the Hill’ is a huge song, perhaps overlooked by the vastly different ‘Shape of You’, which was released simultaneously with it. It’s a song which echoes memories of growing up, memories of the place he lived when he was younger (which was Suffolk) and memories of his friends. It’s hauntingly poignant and reflective. What I love about the joint release with ‘Shape of You’ is the fact that the two songs appeal to two different types of people and there’s something all music fans can find comfort and refuge in within them.
This is followed by ‘Dive’. ‘Dive’ is Divide’s answer to the successful ‘Thinking Out Loud’. It’s ballady, something Sheeran does very well. The album is laced with these slower songs, see ‘How Would I Feel (Paean)’, the stunning ‘Perfect’ and the quite beautiful ‘Hearts Don’t Break Around Here’. Sheeran is the writer of 21st Century Wedding Songs. He’s assumed a position in soundtracking tales of modern love, in a new era of mobile phones and dating apps. These songs are timelessly classic, yet modern and unique.
Then there’s songs like ‘Shape of You’, which couldn’t get much further away from the love-y songs that encase it. Again, there’s the underlay of syncopated beat and acoustic guitar. There’s something undeniably engaging and catchy though. You can’t help but want to dance and you can’t help but like it. You can listen to it over and over and not get bored by it. It follows the success of songs like ‘Sing’, from his last album, x. Sheeran knows how to write a proper tune. He knows what he’s doing with every second of the album.
‘Galway Girl’ is a weirdly fascinating blend of Irish folk-pop and ‘Eraser’ style rap, sewn together by a chorus that you can’t get out of your head. At two minutes and 51 seconds long it’s not a long song, but it’s one of the most recognisable and well received songs on the album and is (unsurprisingly) Sheeran’s next single. It’s an interesting, risky move and something I wasn’t sure about at all when I first heard it, but it works within the album’s context. It breaks the formulaic blend of slow, love songs, acoustic laced sad songs, upbeat dancier songs and alternative belters.
‘Happier’ is a triumphantly sad break-up song. It screams heartache and its slowness reflects this. This is echoed within the emotional and poignant ‘Supermarket Flowers’. On the surface ‘Supermarket Flowers’ is just a beautifully slow, pleasantly easy to listen to song, which sits nicely at the end of the album, but when you listen closely it’s a song written from his mum’s perspective about his grandmother, who sadly passed away whilst he was recording the album. It’s a beautifully touching tribute and it might even leave you crying a bit, but that might just be me.
‘New Man’ is a song which stands out on the album. It contrasts songs like ‘Happier’ and it could quite easily be written of the same subject, just from a different perspective. It features Sheeran rapping about his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend, almost mocking both of them, like a conscious trail of thought. It features brilliant intertextual references- “keeping up with Kylie and Kim”, “still looking at your Instagram and I’ll be creeping a little” etc. and it encapsulates the trials and tribulations of love in the modern era and for that I love it.
Another significant song from the album is ‘What Do I Know?’. It seems as though Sheeran is generally grateful for everything that’s happened to him over the last 6 or so years and how, simply, you can change the world with music and love. He’s worked his way up from the bottom, inspiring millions and building himself an admirable career. It’s a reminder that we don’t have to overcomplicate things, that sometimes stripping it back and enjoying life is easy enough. We shouldn’t deny ourselves of life’s simple pleasures. It’s core messages remain significant and relevant. Having said that, it’s all probably a bit easier for Ed Sheeran…
The album takes another bold and risky turn with its bonus tracks. The extended album features four extra tracks, which take the listener on what feels like a tour of the world. Barcelona is upbeat and sounds somewhat exotic, with it’s Spanish lyrics and sunkissed melody. Similarly, there’s ‘Bibia Be Ye Ye’ (which translates to “all will be well” in Twi, a language spoken in Ghana), an African inspired song about his visit to Ghana, where he wrote and recorded many songs with Fuse ODG (this being the only one making it onto the album).
‘Nancy Mulligan’ is a song about Sheeran’s Irish grandparents- Nancy and William Sheeran. It outlines their relationship, despite the strict religious divide between Catholic and Protestant. Beoga, who also helped create ‘Galway Girl’, an Antrim based Irish folk group, back Sheeran on the song .
The final bonus track is ‘Save Myself’. It’s a song about loving and looking after yourself. Love yourself before you love anyone else is the song’s underlying sentiment. It’s introspective and a brilliantly, thought provoking way to end the album.
Overall the album is phenomenal. Yes, there are clichéd motifs which lie within the album (but isn’t there with every album?), but Sheeran cleverly throws the odd curveball which knocks you off kilter and keeps you on your toes. It’s the blockbuster of albums- you won’t find one quite like it for ages. It will undeniably stand the test of time.
Ed Sheeran is everywhere (world domination? probable.) and the album is driving me crazy, yet it’s all I want to listen to and I haven’t been able to listen to anything else since its release (and there’s something in that).
Sheeran embarks on a UK arena tour in April before headlining Glastonbury festival in June.