The pop singer draws on multicultural sounds in new album, but hasn’t lost his roots
Ed Sheeran may no longer be the acoustic ballad writer he was five or six years ago, but he has not lost his special touch while expanding into other genres. In his newest album Divide, for which he is currently on tour, he blends his old strumming style with the guitar-rap style he coined during his early-and-middle albums + and X phase. He adds a new medley of Irish, European, and African folk sounds. This past weekend, many Notre Dame students, including myself, streamed to the Allstate Arena just outside of Chicago to witness the pop star’s brilliance live in concert.
When the young Ed Sheeran was starting out, he performed alone because no one would join a band with him. He used, and still uses today, a loop pedal, a device which allows the artist to recreate each part of a track live—the beat, the bass, the solo, the strum—and then step away as the machine continues to loop them over and over again. In this way, he is able to build a layered soundscape, just like a studio recording, but solo and live. As a result, he is now famous for performing alone with just his guitar and pedal—no band, drums, piano, or synth to back him up. As his opening act James Blunt (of the 2004 radio hit “You’re Beautiful”) quipped, “Now Ed doesn’t even have to pay a band. That’s a lot more money for him!”
Divide continues the personal exploration that Sheeran began in his previous albums, and opens his repertoire up to a variety of creative new sounds. There is certainly a sense of familiarity within the thematic material; the opening rap track “Eraser” contemplates his lifelong struggles with alcoholism, drug abuse, and dealing with the fame that leaves him feeling empty inside. All this recalls similarly dark tracks from his prior album X (“Bloodstream,” “Don’t”).
He includes a number of works dedicated to his family and childhood: “Castle on a Hill,” about his carefree youth, and “Supermarket Flowers,” a piano ballad about the passing of his grandmother with some of his most heartbreakingly beautiful lyrics. “Perfect,” which he told the audience was his favorite song ever to write, could be a wedding song and is perhaps most similar to Sheeran’s older style—see songs such as “Thinking Out Loud.”
But Divide has a multicultural influence in it that renders it uniquely powerful. Perhaps the real signature flourish of the album is “Galway Girl,” the Irish-folk, ceili-influenced, upbeat story of a “perfect girl and a perfect night.” Sounding like something plucked straight out of Dublin nightlife, “Galway Girl” is the manifesto of Sheeran’s Irish pride. “Nancy Mulligan,” an ode to his Gaelic ancestry, is no less Celtic in sound or words. Sheeran’s song “Bibia Be Ye Ye” is an uplifting African folk tune about hope; he collaborated on it with native musicians while spending time in Ghana. He sings of dancing along the Catalonian streets in the skippy “Barcelona.” Perhaps the most famous track of the album, played unceasingly on the radio, at parties, and at club scenes across the world, is “Shape of You.” “Shape of You” is his unashamedly electro-pop hit that features the current Jamaican-Caribbean haunting synth trend in modern music (also heard famously in Sia’s “Cheap Thrills”).
Sheeran is as good a live performer as it gets. As mentioned before, he plays solo, recreating each track onstage using just his guitar and loop pedal. Dynamic, smiling, and wearing a t-shirt and beat-up jeans, he looks as if he were one of the crowd, surprised to find himself on stage. But that is his brand. He’s not flashy or glamorously made-up like Taylor Swift. He is not teen-heartthrob-good-looking like One Direction. He is the world’s favorite ginger, a friendly guy you’d want to go to a pub or a bar or a concert with. Playing to all fans in the crowd, new and old alike, he performed many of his older hits, from “Thinking Out Loud” to “I See Fire.” Donning a Chicago Bears jersey for the final act, he played his heart out during a full ten-minute version of “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You,” continually ratcheting up the tension and driving fans into a higher and higher frenzy until he screeched his rap to a halt and bid the stadium goodnight to an earthquake of screaming.
Sheeran’s Divide is laden with his old soft guitar ballad style, but he has synthesized that with a new creative pop vision that explores and combines sounds from all over the world. He is just as masterful over the steel strings as any artist in the world, drawing from them a sound the ancients might have heard from the mythical Orpheus. If Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton were the kings of the rock ‘n roll electric guitar, Ed Sheeran is the god of the acoustic.
Jack Ferguson is a sophomore PLS major living in Fisher Hall. Contact email@example.com.