Claiming both immense commercial and critical success in 2017 was Ed Sheeran’s album, Divide. Nielsen Music, which measures music sales and overall market performance, ranks the album as the top selling album in the United States, with 2.764 million sales including traditional album sales and digital downloads. The album went on to go Platinum in both the United States and the United Kingdom.
This amount of success came a year after late December 2015, when Sheeran abruptly announced he was “taking a break from [his] phone, emails, and all social media.” The year-long break allowed him for time to experience things outside of music. For artists like Sheeran, who draw inspiration from personal experience and emotions, this process is as crucial as time in the studio.
Divide is interesting in that it both embraces Sheeran’s claim to fame, while departing from his previous methods. In terms of cohesiveness, Divide’s tracks are united thematically rather than acoustically. At the heart of the album is the theme of home and maturity as a figure in the music industry.
Half the pleasure of listening to Sheeran is trying to decipher which of his songs are personal philosophies and which are eloquent lyrics designed to universally resonate.
Obviously, the most intimate songs are also the first two of the album: “Eraser” and “Castle on the Hill.” The former speaks about the trappings of fame and the inevitable disconnect with old friends who don’t understand what Sheeran admits is his strange profession. With startingly candid lyrics like “I’m well aware of certain things that can destroy a man like me” and “I think that money is the root of all evil and fame is hell,” the song is a strong start to the album. Overall, the song introduces the root of the album’s drive: The repercussions and joys of coming home.
“Eraser” is also the only song in the album that, at times, feels uneven in terms of lyric over beat. The narration overtakes the melody and the effect borders on dissonance. This is not atypical of Sheeran, who is no stranger in making the bold choice of choosing message over tune (see “Wake Me Up” from the Plus album). “Castle on the Hill” is the sunnier sister to “Eraser,” carrying a more upbeat tune to illustrate Sheeran’s anticipation for home.
With the exception of “Supermarket Flowers,” which is an ode to Sheeran’s deceased grandmother, the rest of the songs in Divide are love songs–Sheeran’s bread and butter. Though he has readily admitted that the love songs on the album are inspired by his current girlfriend, the lyrics are vague enough to echo with his large, international audience.
Listening to Divide removed from the knowledge of its monetary and critical success, the album’s heterogeneous sound is evident. With success comes more opportunity and with his career being one of the major themes of the album, Sheeran showcases clear development from his signature looping, acoustic sound to a more varied arrangement of music, playing full songs with the main sound not on the guitar but with a piano or the experimental Irish folk tune.
There is an obvious experimentation away from the usual, apparent in outliers from his usual sound like “Galway Girl,” “Barcelona,” “Bibia Be Ye Ye,” and “Nancy Mulligan.” The tones of these songs break the unitive sound of the entire album but also showcase Sheeran’s aptitude as a songwriter and producer.
Divide is deserving of its title as the one of the best albums of 2017 not just because of the degree of expertise that each song is constructed with. What the album illustrates is a feat in of itself: Sheeran’s rightful place in the top tiers of the music industry. It is a showcase of his dexterity as a performer, lyricist, and producer, and more importantly, a professional who can release a high caliber of work even after a year-long disconnect.