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The Homecoming King of Pop

Ed Sheeran, the cheeseball troubadour behind ‘Thinking Out Loud’ and Justin Bieber’s ‘Love Yourself,’ is fully inescapable. It’s time to make peace with him.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Ed Sheeran, explain yourself! Justify your mystifying mass appeal! Who is this guy? Why is this guy? Beatboxing ginger, cheeseball troubadour, friend-zoned ponce, pop superstar — he croons, he raps, he riles, he name-drops, he confounds. He sells millions of records; he sells out Wembley Stadium. He wrote “Thinking Out Loud,” a sweet and charming and ubiquitous first-wedding-dance slow jam; he wrote “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You,” a pissy, guitar-slapping white-funk riposte that includes the line “They say I’m up-and-coming like I’m fucking in an elevator.” He has both collaborated with Justin Bieber (on the even pissier “Love Yourself”) and whapped Justin Bieber in the face with a golf club. His house contains many mansions. It’s awfully confusing. His new album, Divide, will go straight to no. 1 and might stay there for quite a while. Let’s deal with this.

Dispensing Immediately With Sensual Matters

This song is gross.

“I’m in love with your body,” sings Ed Sheeran, roughly 6,000 times. “Shape of You,” the bigger of Divide’s two lead singles, shrewdly triangulates the Pretty Good and the Very Bad, where this particular human is concerned. The song is catchy, deft, percussive, smug, dorky, insidious. And, yes, gross. He performed it live, alone, at the Grammys last month, as a very showy loop-pedal jam, a one-man open-mic-night party trick. Sheeran clearly belongs onstage, though this song’s lyrics belong elsewhere, such as in the trash. “I’m in love with the shape of you / We push and pull like a magnet do.” No, thanks. One’s mind flashes immediately to another smug/dorky folk-pop sex jam: “Your Body Is a Wonderland,” from one John Mayer, who looms over Sheeran now as both a patron saint and a cautionary tale.

Ed is, after all, on the very short list of active top-tier male pop stars, and is one of the few among those few whose public persona is not absurdly toxic. He aspires to bad-boy status — see “Dark Times,” his ludicrous 2015 duet with the Weeknd, whose own conception of the phrase “dark times” is just a little bit darker — but Sheeran is too cuddly, too safe, too sane. His boudoir talk is merely yucky as opposed to actively predatory. He has not yet had his piss in a bucket moment, or his throw Janet Jackson under the bus moment, but you fear the inevitable warping nature of fame this isolating and vertiginous.

He fears it, too. Divide kicks off with “Eraser,” an acoustic-guitar-and-rapping mini-tirade that definitely needs to Mackle less. It traces Sheeran’s arc from struggling busker to global supernova, a rags-to-riches-that-still-look-like-rags tale he tells often, a double helix of ambition and Taylor Swift–style weaponized resentment. (His favorite TS song is probably “Mean.”) “Friends and family filled with envy when they should be filled with pride,” he laments. The chorus starts, “I’m well aware of certain things that can destroy a man like me,” and one’s mind can’t help but jump to the darkest possible place: Are we in for a solid hour of paranoid, solipsistic pity-party humblebragging? Which is to say: Is this Ed Sheeran’s Views?

No, thank goodness. He pivots, immediately, to “Castle on the Hill,” the lower-profile and much better of Divide’s two lead singles, a widescreen, hard-driving, nostalgia-choked anthem in the proud Coldplay/U2 tradition. A “Tiny Dancer” shout-out livens up the virile, bellowing chorus; it’s all very grandiose and ridiculous and lovely. Sheeran switches modes quickly, from rockers to weepers, love songs to kiss-offs, whispers to thunderclaps, a shrewd all-things-to-all-mothers approach. All his records are like this, careful not to sustain any one mood long enough to succumb to moodiness, a keen balance between the tough guy and the softie so as to maximize his appeal, his true gifts less rhythmic than algorhythmic. Divide, by the way, is stylized as ÷, continuing the trend established by his 2011 full-length debut Plus (+) and 2014’s ungodly huge Multiply (X), which means he’s basically boxed himself into a scabrous 2020 breakup rock opera called Subtract (-). Just a little something to look forward to.

It Could Be Worse (It Already Is)

The problem with dismissing Sheeran out of hand is that somebody needs to fill his Scruffy, Soulful Loverboy Troubadour lane, and most of the other high-profile musicians currently vying to fill it are far, far gnarlier. Shawn Mendes is too green, Jason Mraz too hokey, Nick Jonas too thirsty. The nicest thing you can say about Ed is he had absolutely nothing to do with Lukas Graham’s morose and risible “7 Years”; the meanest thing you can say is of course he had something to do with it. Sheeran’s copycats are so bad they make him look much, much better. Divide is, for the nonce, as good as this sort of thing is gonna get. Even when it’s terrible.

“New Man” is even grosser. He’s rapping again, for one thing; for another, he is cruelly assessing an old flame’s current boyfriend in the crudest and strangest possible terms. I apologize for quoting this: “He’s got his eyebrows plucked and his asshole bleached / Owns every single Ministry CD.” Really? Ministry? This Ministry? Do the bleached-asshole/industrial-metal-fan Venn diagrams even intersect at all? Don’t answer that. Here, wash your mouth out with his cover of “Trap Queen.”

Sorry, sorry. Sheeran is too easy to make fun of. He realizes this; he weaponizes it, too. The better moments on Divide are often the most audacious and ill-advised, the thrilling sense that he is just barely getting away with something. “Galway Girl” is a weird Celtic-rap hybrid that somehow doesn’t clear the room; “How Would You Feel (Paean)” and “Supermarket Flowers” are back-to-back piano-driven weepers — about love and death, respectively — that attempt to capture your heart by short-circuiting your brain. This approach does not always work: You also get a not terribly graceful Graceland rip called “Bibia Be Ye Ye” and a few too many mildly problematic love songs. This record is too long and too goopy, but it’s volatile enough that the time passes quickly, and usually painlessly. And if your mind does wander, there’s plenty of other stuff to think about.

The Least-Famous Famous Man in Rock

Are you aware of the fact that Princess Beatrice of York accidentally slashed Sheeran with a sword whilst pretending to knight James Blunt at a party? He has a scar on his face and everything. What a time to be alive. If you read that in, say, a Tom Wolfe novel, you’d throw the book across the room. Ed has many talents, musical and self-promotional, but name-dropping might be his true calling; he has a genuinely bizarre and fascinating relationship with celebrity, from his Jamie Foxx–driven origin story to his ongoing Taylor non-flirtations to the way he casually dishes on his jovial chats with everyone from Elton John to Eric Clapton to the cast of Game of Thrones. Sheeran is, himself, extremely famous, and successful enough at this point that he can crow about his plans to outsell Adele and not sound totally delusional. But he doesn’t quite play the part, or, OK, look the part. An overdog in an underdog’s shabby clothing.

Which makes him dangerous, a wee bit disingenuous, and susceptible to the same burnout pitfalls that have waylaid most of his competition. He is a sensitive, romantical, ambitious gentleman in his mid-20s, commanding unimaginable fame and influence, who believes himself to be both the Conquering Hero and the Nice, Normal, Down-to-Earth Guy. Perhaps that’s who he really is, but the danger is that he will continue to believe that even if, for some reason, it transpires one day that he is not, not anymore. That’s when things get dicey, historically. But the all-powerful-everyman shtick also keeps you interested. Ed Sheeran is the runaway train that refuses to wreck, the boring old good guy determined to break just the right amount of bad. It would be better for all involved if he doesn’t, but he’s worth keeping one eye on, just in case he does.