Ed Sheeran’s albums are predictable. All of them bulge at the seams with love songs, all of them are dotted with his sad attempts at rap and all of them have contained one or two tunes of childhood nostalgia.
His highly anticipated album “Divide” is appearing to be just as predictable. Three singles have already been released, and each of them satisfies one of the criteria necessary for one of Sheeran’s classic math symbol albums. The void left by “Thinking Out Loud” on “X,” which left Sheeran's fan base begging for another love song, has already been filled by “How Would You Feel.” The pathetic attempt at rap “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You” on “+” has already been replaced by Sheeran’s most successful attempt at hip-hop yet, “Shape of You.” Sheeran's memory-recalling tracks, like “Grade 8” on “+” and “Even My Dad Does Sometimes” on “X,” have been replaced by a new tale told through the encapsulating, sentimental tune “Castle on the Hill.”
The singles, however, do more than just fill the vacuums left by their predecessors. All three singles are refined versions of Sheeran’s past work. While the songs from “+” and “X” were lacking, the three released singles from “Divide” are anything but.
“How Would You Feel (Paean)” is an elevated and more mature version of the love song Sheeran wrote and rewrote on his previous albums. The track finds him straying away from the anthems centered around age, alcohol and college that have dominated his earlier records through songs like “Thinking Out Loud,” “U.N.I” and “Give Me Love.” He instead focuses on love in its purest form. It’s an undertaking he hasn’t really tackled before. The song isn’t about the break-ups, the unrequited love or the drunken love he typically writes about, but rather about a successful relationship and how two people deal with the difficulty of love. The subtitle even furthers the meaning of the song: A paean is “a song of praise or triumph,” and that’s exactly what “How Would You Feel” offers on the topic of love.
“Castle on the Hill,” on the other hand, is a culmination of Sheeran’s work as a storyteller. Prior songs about the red-haired singer’s past have focused on singular events or people; past subjects include his father, one year from his primary school days or a miscarriage his friend experienced. Yet in “Divide,” he tells a more protracted and complicated story. “Castle on the Hill” goes through Sheeran’s entire childhood in Suffolk, chronicling events ranging from a broken leg at age 6 to his first kiss at age 15. The track ultimately turns its eyes to Sheeran's present, where he watches his friends slowly part ways. In an almost Springsteen-esque way, he paints a picture of life that is unseen by the media or his fans. In such a way, “Castle on the Hill” brings together singular events that could have formed the subject material for an entire album.
Though his two prior singles were certainly improvements, “Shape of You” is the most dramatic refinement of Sheeran’s past work. The single elevates Sheeran’s hip-hop songs from ones that will kill the party to ones that will start the party. His rapping is slowed down, his attempts at beat-boxing are replaced by a multi-layered marimba rhythm that consumes the background and his awkward hip-hop rhythm that was notoriously difficult to dance to is now irresistibly groovy. He identified what was wrong with the songs that so often dragged down his albums and eliminated all of their deficiencies. As a result, his singles are now being played incessantly at clubs and parties, not just in the bedrooms of people who also have life-size posters of him on the wall.
If these three released singles are any indication of what the soon to be released album will be, then Sheeran will only be raising the standard that he set with his two debut albums. The singles are more finely tuned, more mature and more thorough than much of his previous work.
But the trajectory of an artist’s music isn’t always predictable. Sheeran could completely ruin his musical reputation with the remainder of the album for all we know. We’ll have to wait for the release date March 3 to see what happens, but with these three singles, such a collapse is definitely not predicted.