THE SHORT REVIEW
One of the most popular musicians of all time, Ed Sheeran has maintained a strong presence over the entire 2010s and now he is back in the 20s with, = (Equal), his first album in four years. At this point Ed Sheeran is a veteran songwriter, a good singer, and a good guitarist and beatboxer and the songs on Equal are not great, the singing is not good, and they rely too heavily on electronic sounds to vapid effect. Even the songs that are similar to Ed’s previous releases, for example “2step,” are just very average for what he can do. It’s unclear where Sheeran is heading in his career but let’s hope that this album is not a herald.
Writing: (5/10) There is no great song on this album. There are several decent ones, for example “The Joker and the Queen” and “Overpass Graffiti,” but most of the writing is forced and bland. In addition, the choices of instrumentation and the album’s sound palette are just bad.
Production: (6/10) Largely strong. Of all the problems this album has, the production does what it is supposed to do and the mixing is also largely good (with the exception of the “Tides” intro). I would, however, question his choice of producers (ex. Fred on “Shivers”) because they influence the sound of many of the weakest songs.
Structure: (5/10) Every Ed Sheeran album has been a collection of songs with little connection to each other and there is nothing wrong with that in itself. On his previous albums, however, the songs were placed in a way that they gave a flow to the album. This is not the case on Equal, with the poppy singles being clumped together, the back end having errant clusters of fast songs and ballads, and the final song having no sense of finality.
What I think: This one was sad to review. Equal is not a terrible album, but it is bad for Ed Sheeran’s abilities. Many songs try new things and fail and the songs that rely on his old formulas are very bland.
THE LONG REVIEW
Ed Sheeran was something of a genre within himself. By way of layered acoustic guitar, beatboxing, fast singing, and sentimental ballads, he conquered the pop world and became one of the biggest musicians of all time with over 26 million album sales. His first project, + (Plus), was a series of simple songs that leaned heavily on his guitar and vocal skills and nostalgic cliches with songs like“The A-Team.” Although Plus was a lackluster album, Sheeran’s sound was refreshing at a time when pop was mostly overproduced. Similar in sound, his sophomore project, “X”, featured cleaner production and more mainstream appeal on songs like “Photograph” and “Sing.” As Sheeran grew up and blew up, his sound became more pop-ish on his 2017 album, ÷ (Divide). Songs like “Shape of You” typified this sound; still featuring some acoustic elements but moving away from them into purer pop. Since Divide, Sheeran has put out one project, his No. 6 Collaborations Project, which saw him release the vapid “I Don’t Care” with Justin Bieber and several crossovers into rap with 50 Cent, Stormzy, and Eminem. The resulting product was forced and uninspired, with Sheeran trying desperately to stay relevant and artistic through features and production instead of his strengths. All in all, the bar was not set high for Sheeran’s new project, = (Equal), and yet this album fails to meet expectations still. The sound throughout Equal is wayward, forced, and incohesive amounting to Ed Sheeran’s worst release to date.
The opening song “Tides” barrages your ears with a repeated guitar chord and melody that whitewashes the otherwise effective lyrics about the passage of time. The production on this track is confusing as well with the opening guitar being too loud and the chorus too soft. As far as structure, the individual sections are clear but transitions are dreadful, especially from the verses to the chorus.
Although the singles come second, fourth, and fifth on the album, “Shivers,” “Bad Habits,” and “Overpass Graffiti” suffer from a similar problem. Ed Sheeran’s writing is not good over dance beats. “Shivers” sounds like an ordinary Ed Sheeran song but when you add a dance beat the result sounds like a bad remix. Even worse is the utterly lifeless single “Bad Habits,” which is Ed’s attempt at writing a pure dance-pop “hit.” “Overpass Graffiti,” the third single from the album, suffers under the same treatment as the previous two but owns it more. This is a relative judgment, though, because this song is also not good: there are some odd choices in instrumentation and the chorus background vocals are irritating. Together, the weakness of these three singles shows a serious misunderstanding of what Sheeran’s strengths are, replacing his natural charm and talent for evoking emotion with dull writing and pop beats.
Truer to form, there are several acoustic ballads on this album. The first of these is the third track, “First Times.” Over a simple guitar line, Sheeran spins a heartfelt tale about a relationship like he has done many times before. This song is written well but it is very cliché due to how many times he has done this exact thing before. This alone is not what makes it a bad song, however, because it also features a bad vocal performance. It is obvious that Ed’s voice on this track is not doing what it’s supposed to; he’s straining for notes and losing sustained sound throughout, but especially in the first half.
The second ballad, “The Joker and the Queen” features simple piano and guitar, similar to his heartbreaking “Supermarket Flowers.” This song stood out as the strongest of the first half of this project, featuring strong, albeit overindulgent, writing. It even manages to own the ultra-sappy orchestral accompaniment that appears part-way through.
The last two ballads on the album are twelfth and thirteenth on the tracklist: “Visiting Hours” and “Sandman.” The first of these, “Visiting Hours,” is nondescript until a sea shanty backup group and brass shows up in clear defiance of the song’s purpose as a grieving, almost Tears-in-heaven-esque tearjerker. Other than these odd choices of accompaniment, Sheeran’s vocals are solid and the song is written well, even though it is structured disjunctly. The last ballad/lullaby on the album is exactly what it wants to be, a lullaby. There’s nothing wrong with it, the vocals are fine, the writing is adept, and the production is good, but it doesn’t really land because the rest of the album is completely different. Altogether, the four ballads on this tracklist don’t break the mold of Sheeran’s previous discography but they don’t fall short of it either.
There are only a few things to note for the remaining six tracks. Many of them add new sounds or do new things (the beat on “Leave Your Life” or the techno influences of “Be Right Now”) but they are all very average for Sheeran’s abilities. Ed Sheeran is a great songwriter, a good singer, and a good guitarist and beatboxer and these songs are not great, the singing is not good, and they rely on electronic sounds. Even the songs that are similar to Ed’s previous releases, for example “2step,” are just very average for what he can do.
In summary, Equal is not a terrible album, but it is bad for Ed Sheeran’s abilities. Many songs try new things and fail and the songs that rely on his old formulas are very average.