Early in 2021, an interesting trend was born on TikTok. Somewhere along the line, it became trendy to deem Ed Sheeran “cringe,” his sweetness slipping into saccharine in the eyes of a younger generation. Ed Sheeran jumpscares set to “Shape of You” were all over the #ForYouPage.
This kind of backlash isn’t new — it’s all too common for people to start to dislike earnestness when they become bored of it. Despite the temporary Gen-Z rebranding Sheeran underwent, his talent and status amid 21st century pop artists is undeniable.
He puts on one of the most personal and interesting stadium shows out there right now, building his songs from scratch live with only his loop pedal and guitar, free of a backing band, dancers, or the special effects that tend to accompany other shows of that size. He’s written dozens of hits not only for himself, but for some of the other biggest names in the pop landscape.
The disappointment with his latest album, Equals (stylized as = to fit his mathematical canon) is that his talent, namely the interesting and inventive writing that propelled him to the top, is not as present here. It’s settled, comfortable, and a bit too repetitive. It’s inoffensive, which is perhaps worst of all. Equals commits the greatest sin of pop music: it just isn’t very interesting.
Ed Sheeran is no longer the scrappy underdog of the Plus era that caught a generation’s attention, nor is he the energetic outsider of Multiply. To be clear, that’s okay — it’s good, necessary, even, for artists to grow and evolve — and it’s a relief that he isn’t trying to cosplay as any sort of outsider.
“I have grown up, I am a father now,” he says on the first line of the first song, “Tides,” signaling right away what kind of album Equals is going to be. The domestic, parental bliss slides too far on “Sandman,” though, a lullaby for his child. There was a believable simplicity in tracks of yesteryear like “One” and “Wake Me Up” that just seems to be missing from these love songs, whether he’s speaking to his wife or his young child. Where is the piercing tenderness of a line like, “I’m falling for your eyes, but they don’t know me yet?”