REVIEW: Divide combines diverse sounds with thoughtful lyrics

After releasing arguably the most anticipated album of 2017, Ed Sheeran makes his triumphant return to the world of pop by presenting a work that prefers to be understated. Divide (stylized ÷) isn’t a comeback album or a continuation of previous efforts; it is its own ferocious album, fusing different sounds and themes into a work that stands as a testament to a mature songwriter and his increasingly unique voice in the world of pop.

With Multiply (x), Sheeran created songs that could be easily released as promotional singles, but Divide is a more intimate offering. Gone are the atmospheric productions of “Bloodstream” and “Photograph” — they are replaced with softer, more intricate guitar patterns. At the helm is Sheeran himself, commanding an album that might otherwise be directionless.

He doesn’t create anthems for arenas. This time around, he opts for quieter songs of reflection and analysis. He’s more likely to let his voice float from song to song than belt with the intensity of “Thinking Out Loud,” allowing his vocals and lyrics to shine.

There is something to offer for fans of all genres. He tackles top-40 radio with his smash hit “Shape of You,” an infectious banger that is both minimalistic and tight with its production. Sheeran raps on opening track “Eraser,” a song that expresses his insecurity about fame, while “Galway Girl,” a more experimental track, intertwines an Irish fiddle into the background of Sheeran’s vocal storytelling.

Nevertheless, there are tracks that fall flat, particularly when Sheeran croons about love. “Perfect” feels more like it would belong in a boring version of a Cinderella story, as Sheeran falls into a love story cliche, pining to an imaginary lover. It breaks no new ground; the guitars are lost in the background and Sheeran’s voice never quite reaches the intensity the song needs.

Sheeran is best when his songs are pronounced rather than restrained. “New Man” makes use of rap-sung vocals to satirize an ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend he feels is not right for her. Sheeran’s lyricism shines, as he skeptically paints a picture of a jerk who “wear[s] sunglasses indoors, in winter, at night time” and “makes a gang sign” every time he hears a rap song, before admonishing his old lover about her outlandish behavior.

Meanwhile, “Castle on the Hill” is a coming-of-age anthem that soars. Sheeran’s vocals are their peak; his voice cracks at its most intense point. There is pure vulnerability in his lyrics: He takes the listener on a picturesque journey through a chaotic childhood with his friends. He does not fall into the trap of nostalgia, offering a fresh perspective on adolescence with his whimsical and down-to-earth storytelling.

Closing out the standard edition of the album is the heartbreaking “Supermarket Flowers,” an ode to Sheeran’s deceased grandmother. “Hallelujah / You were an angel in the shape of my mum,” Sheeran laments in his lyrics — pain fills his voice and echoes over a somber piano melody. Harmonies and backup vocals are introduced in the chorus, haunting the listener with its simplicity and power.

Some of the best songs are on the deluxe edition of the album, worthwhile additions to Divide. “Barcelona” experiments with flutes and horns: Sheeran’s voice is energized as he belts out his lyrics in Spanish.

“Bibia Be Ye Ye” prompts the listener to get on their feet and grab a partner with Ghanian-influenced sounds and lyrics; the guitar is light and frothy to complement Sheeran’s fast-paced vocals. “Nancy Mulligan” takes what was started in “Galway Girl” and perfects it, bringing the fiddle to the front and center to create a dance anthem that pays homage to Sheeran’s roots.

He adds hip-hop elements and stomping beats as the song progresses, spiraling into a glorious chaos that can’t help but leave the listener smiling. 

Divide is not the album fans may have been expecting from Sheeran. Yet, Sheeran always aims to defy expectations and evolve while staying true to his sound. With Divide, he further distances himself from conventional pop, preferring minimalism to the big-production radio pop. As a result, he created a work that is both easily accessible and challenging, and ultimately succeeding in his own style.