Album Review: Ed Sheeran Unleashes Empty ‘= (Equals)’

“I lost the confidence in who I was / Too busy tryna chase the high and get the numbers up,” Ed Sheeran croons in “Tides,” the first track on his paint-by-the-numbers Equals album. A remarkably uninteresting and flat record, Equals is Ed’s attempt at figuring out where he fits in the pop music landscape of 2021. Half a decade has passed since the release of Ed’s last album Divide — an era of his career marked by chart-busting #1 hits like “Shape of You” and “Perfect” as well as a puzzling exclusion from the General Field categories at the Grammys. Ed was on top of pop music’s totem pole; every song he dropped drew hundreds of millions of streams and dominated the airwaves. In the years since Divide, pop music’s mainstream has gotten a lot more interesting The tame acoustic pop of Ed’s peak was replaced by the vibrant autobiographical pop-rap of Lil Nas X, scores of sexually empowered and versatile women rappers (Doja Cat, Megan Thee Stallion, Saweetie, etc.), an impassioned pop-rock revival (Olivia Rodrigo, Halsey, WILLOW, etc.), and an influx of pop stars that sing in languages other than English (BTS, Rauw Alejandro, etc.). The guitar-strumming white guy trope has struggled to find its footing since the pop music guard changed. “Where does Ed Sheeran fit in pop music in 2021?” This is the question Equals attempts to answer while hitting some devastating low points along the way.

“Tides” is a typical Ed Sheeran opener. Energetic guitars, reflective lyrics on the past in the context of where he currently is in his life, and an emphasis on sprawling verses over compact hooks and choruses. Typical is the most accurate descriptor for the vast majority of Equals. The whole album feels phoned-in. The more uptempo pop tracks on the album are either mind-numbingly boring or so dated that they become contrived. “Shivers” is the most pleasant of that pack; the hook is a good old-fashioned Sheeran earworm and the faint taste of brass in the back is a smart touch. Nevertheless, the track feels very Shawn Mendes-esque, which creates an amusing loop because so much of Shawn’s music and career path has drawn influence from Ed’s. “Shivers,” unfortunately, falls victim to the poor mixing that plagues the rest of the album. Across Equals, Ed’s voice sounds oddly high and tinny. It’s the same reason, out of which there are many, that “Bad Habits” remains such an awful song even when placed in context with the rest of the album. “Overpass Graffiti,” an 80s synth-pop number about an unforgettable breakup, is astonishingly devoid of any kind of passion or grit. The track misses the mark mostly because it comes at the tail-end of the 80s synth-pop trend that dominated pop’s mainstream last year… and everybody else did it better. A similar situation muddies “Collide,” a Jack Ü-esque concoction that screams 2014. For years people asked Ed to try sounds that were outside of his beloved guitar-plus-loop-station combo. Maybe that was a mistake. Ed is so desperate to prove the necessity of his presence in pop music’s mainstream that he ends up behind the curve. Everyone at pop music’s zeitgeist is innovating and bringing something fresh to the table; Ed is reheating leftovers from six or seven years ago. Not only are so many of these songs incredibly grating, but they also don’t show much lyrical growth from any of Ed’s previous projects.

Asylum / Atlantic

Ed Sheeran was able to remain a pop music stalwart for so many years because he depended on timeless lovestruck ballads. It’s where he always shines and never falters. These moments on Equals, whether they’re syrupy sweet or masterfully melancholic, keep the record from being a total slop. “First Times” is gorgeous; Ed trades the anthemic nature of “Thinking Out Loud” for a more reserved and tender vocal performance. “I still feel the first fight, and we both made it out alive / And I can’t wait to make a million more first times,” he coos. Expect this song to soundtrack cutesy video montages of sweet moments from your favorite TikTok and Instagram couples. There’s also “Visiting Hours,” the crown jewel of Equals and a spiritual successor to “Even My Dad Does Sometimes” and “Supermarket Flowers.” “Visiting Hours” is Ed at his best. Gentle guitar and vulnerable lyrics that unpack his fears while uplifting departed loved ones. This is one of the few moments on the album that inspires any genuine emotion from Ed. Similarly, “The Joker and The Queen” utilizes an intelligent extended deck of cards metaphor to relay the genesis of his romance with his wife. The instrumental break is excellent, and the twinkling piano is the perfect anchor for the song. This song will almost certainly be treated to a remix, so don’t be surprised to hear Ariana Grande or Olivia Rodrigo crooning alongside Ed on this beautiful track.

As for everything else on Equals, it all feels like a mountain of filler. “2step” is a cute track that Ed has made in more interesting ways on previous projects. On the other hand, songs like “Love In Slow Motion,” “Be Right Now,” and “Stop The Rain” straddle the line between abysmal and lifeless. So, where does Ed Sheeran fit in pop music’s landscape in 2021? It’s not quite clear, and Ed seems to still be searching for an answer due to how middling and cluttered Equals is. This is a puzzling situation because 2019’s No.6 Collaborations Project was miles ahead of Equals in terms of exploring different sounds, so maybe Ed needed a feature or two on this album. Despite the success of “Bad Habits” and “Shivers” and Equals’s #1 debut, the album still feels remarkably hollow. This is Ed’s worst studio album yet and it couldn’t have come at a more crucial time in his career.

Key Tracks: “Visiting Hours” | “The Joker and the Queen” | “Tides” | “First Times”

Score: 55

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