Few artists today exercise the ability to create music across different genres. Experimentation can be too risky, specifically for people who have already achieved a substantial amount of commercial success. Even when musicians do decide to stray from their norm, they typically do so by completely leaving behind their original sound; Taylor Swift’s conversion from country to pop with 1989 and Childish Gambino’s switch from rap to R&B in Awaken My Love! are perfect examples. Before last week, I couldn’t recall listening to an album that featured an artist trying to juggle a litany of extremely contrasting sounds in an effort to create something substantial. We live in a culture that breeds our minds into perceiving everything through the status quo, and the status quo is based upon assigning behaviors to certain groups; the cool kids have their own table, only unfashionable people wear U.S.P.A., and so on and so on. Who would dare to go against the bias toward categorization that has been embedded in us from birth?
After having listened again and again to Ed Sheeran’s Divide, I’ve found the answer.
It would almost be a disservice to simply label the singer’s third studio album as ‘pop’. From the fusion of acoustic rhythms and hip hop tempos in “Eraser” to the folk feel of “Galway Girl”, he showcases his knack for breaking genre barriers. The variety of musical styles makes listening to the album feel like you’re blindly reaching into a goodie-bag, unsure of what you’re going to get next but confident that it’ll be a sweet experience. However, fans of his last two albums won’t be disappointed by the album’s (variety); “Shape of You” and “Castle on the Hill” are the type of heartwarming love singles that he rose to fame upon.
On the topic of emotions, Sheeran’s past relationships are the common thread that weaves Divide together. The somber “Supermarket Flowers” recounts the passing of Sheeran’s grandmother from the point of view of his mother. The lyrics stand out for their bluntness, and give a clear impression of the gloom that comes with accepting death. “Dive”, another notable track, exposes his vulnerability in having exposed his affection in a lover who may not reciprocate.
It’s interesting that for all Sheeran has done on the album, it has overall received mixed reviews. Some may see him as simply a very, very good karaoke artist who lacks an identity of his own. While I wouldn’t fully agree with that statement, Sheeran’s clearly using styles that other artists have already capitalized in an attempt to create his own music. Sometimes the similarities are too apparent, as it is in the track “Happier”, is most notable for its discrete similarity to Sam’s Smith “Stay With Me”. If you listen closely to the hook, “And until then I’ll smile to hide the truth/But I know I was happier with you” almost completely matches the timing and inflection of Smith’s “This ain’t love, it’s clear to see/But darling, stay with me”.
Still, most of the music we hear either borrows from someone else, or just isn’t good on its own (or both in some cases). Even if Sheeran’s songs individually aren’t the most unique, Divide as a whole blends different elements and genres in such a proficient way that Sheeran’s talent cannot be ignored. There’s something entrancing about the way that he can perform nearly an entire verse of “Barcelona” in Spanish and then sing a Ghanian proverb while playing the guitar on the next track. Above all else, the artistry of the album is its most compelling aspect, making Divide undeniably kaleidoscopic and enjoyably imaginative.