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Did you know Ed Sheeran is a new father? Perhaps you missed his Instagram post. Or the thousands of news headlines. Or the number of times he’s brought it up since. In which case, some news: the British singer-songwriter has procreated. It’s the first thing you hear on the opener of his fourth album, = (pronounced “Equals”), when he declares: “I am a father now.” I’m not doubting that having children is a life-changing experience, but I do wish male artists would approach the subject matter in a less painfully literal way. The song itself, “Tides”, is a lively jolt of Irish coffee, with Johnny McDaid and Foy Vance giving it a Celtic bent (mercifully without the teeth-gritting tweeness of 2017’s “Galway Girl”). It’s not exactly “back to basics” but it's certainly a throwback to the guitar-based sound Sheeran rose to fame on, as he admits: “I lost confidence in who I was/ Too busy trying to chase the high and get the numbers up.”
And what numbers. Sheeran’s recent single “Bad Habits” is the fastest track to reach half a million UK sales. He’s sold 45 million albums and 150 million singles. He’s won six Brit Awards, seven Billboard Awards and four Grammys. But what does it actually mean, in the end? Equals is Sheeran putting on the brakes and recalibrating his priorities. On “First Times”, he seems to humble-brag – “Thought it’d be different playing Wembley/ 80,000 people singing with me” – before acknowledging that he was swept up by his industry successes. Against swelling strings that recall “Give Me Love” from his 2011 debut, his lyrics tread a fine line between sweet and saccharine. “Ain’t it funny how the simplest things in life can make a man,” he sings, upping the “ick” quotient. He does better on “The Joker and the Queen”, with its mournful piano motif that sounds oddly like the late Carlos d'Alessio’s score for the French film, Delicatessen. It’s easy to envisage it overtaking Sheeran’s “Perfect” or “Thinking Out Loud” as the wedding song du jour, even if he still struggles to describe the object of his affections. As with his previous albums, Sheeran has listed enough generic body parts here – red lips, brown eyes, hips, neck, hair, hands – for Dr Frankenstein to build his monster a girlfriend.
Artists who describe new projects as their “most personal yet” tend to do so as a defensive reflex. Ed Sheeran, though, has clearly gone through a transitional period in the time since his last album, 2017’s Divide, was released. He got married to his old school friend Cherry Seaborn, turned 30, and had a daughter, Lyra. He also lost a close friend and mentor, the veteran Australian music promoter Michael Gudisnki, to whom he paid tribute to at a memorial service in March. Plenty, then, for songs that provide a deeper insight into the “normal bloke” the world has come to know.
“Overpass Graffiti” is a surprise, bringing in a characterful bass and little synth chirps redolent of The Cure’s “Close to Me”. The chorus, meanwhile, is indebted to the sweetly melodic nostalgia of “Boys of Summer” by Don Henley; Sheeran, who used to sing like his shoulders were perpetually hunched, sounds joyous. Single “Shivers” opens on Florence and the Machine-style plucks of violin before diving into Nineties boyband territory with the help of co-writer/producer Steve Mac (Westlife, Boyzone). “Stop the Rain” is equally catchy but darker, as he takes another stab at addressing past criticism: “Every time it’s getting more and more ugly.” In the past, it’s been tricky to sympathise with Sheeran’s problems when moments later he’s boasting about his many accolades. He's taken the hint, here sounding steely instead of self-pitying against a Spanish flame of guitar and shaking off the hate as though it's just a bit of drizzle: “Read my mind, there’ll be ups and downs/ But it won’t change a thing between you and I.” He avoids turning the songs on this album into as much of a box-ticking exercise as they felt on earlier records, managing to incorporate his influences in with a little more flair. “Just because I can,” he seems to say, “doesn’t mean I should.”
Sheeran performs best when he’s not trying to trick the listener. Single “Bad Habits” would be a better song if he hadn’t felt the need to riff so blatantly on “Smalltown Boy” by Bronski Beat. Speaking of bad habits, he’s clearly well aware that fans tend to fall for what sounds familiar, so he skilfully – surreptitiously, perhaps – weaves in the signatures of better songs by Marvin Gaye, TLC, and, in the case of “Visiting Hours”, “Hero” by Enrique Iglesias. When he’s not doing that, though – as songs like the playful and moving “Sandman”, written for his daughter, prove – he has a perfectly good pop album on his hands. Equation solved.