Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants. Time to shape up for today.
Ed Sheeran always seems like he could do more. He’s a fairly smart, genre diverse songwriter who’s charismatic to a fault, and, because he cut his teeth on years of busking, he has core self-possession that you won’t find in the Shawn Mendeses (Mendesi?) of the world. Hate or love his material–I’ve done some version of both–you can never accuse him of sounding hapless or incompetent. I feel like he knows this, since in public, he carries himself with a low heat “I am a talented singer-songwriter; I write my own songs and use my own loop pedal” seriousness that stems from aspirations of being the most successful. Put it this way: if he were a Weasley, even though he dresses like Bill, he’d be Percy.
Yet, for his goal of being number one, Sheeran, at least so far in a pop context, lacks the intangible “next level”ness needed to get him to the A-list. Sure, he’s top-tier: he’s got a number one song, Divide will debut and stay atop the charts for a long time, he can fill Madison Square Garden with adoring fans, and he has a Song of the Year Grammy; but he won’t do something to seize the moment. Like, look at Sheeran’s friendo Taylor Swift. Swift followed a linear pattern of escalation until 2012’s Red, where she made songs with superproducers that went all the way into pop, but did so on her terms, and tried her hand at every genre possible (including “featuring Ed Sheeran”). Then, she took Red‘s breakthrough, multi-genre success, and consolidated it all into a pop and pop culture takeover with 1989. Sheeran, though he’ll work with guys like Pharrell and Steve Mac, won’t have a move like that. He won’t have a move like The Weeknd gatecrashing the charts with Max Martin’s help. He won’t adopt a trend and make one of its biggest songs like Drake or Bieber. He won’t creatively one-up himself like Beyonce.
I don’t say all of that to beat up on Sheeran (much), just that, if you want to be the guy, you’ve gotta fucking be the guy. You’ve gotta be the guy who will read the room, and see what doesn’t just get by, but what does best. You’ve gotta be the guy that tries a switch up. And it takes more than working hard on a song; you can’t be above playing the pop game. You can’t keep halfassing your lead singles.
Which finally brings us to “Shape Of You.” The shortest way to describe “Shape of You” is “‘Sing’ updated for 2017.” Like “Sing,” it’s deftly performed while being dispassionate enough that it can’t quite mask that Sheeran thinks he’s too good to write for radio, only this time, he’s showing up late to dancehall pop instead of trebley Pharrell-core funk. Sheeran’s take on danceh–okay, I can’t do this. After “Work,” “One Dance,” “Cheap Thrills,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” “What Do You Mean,” “Don’t Wanna Know,” and the rest, I cannot do a blow-by-blow of dancehall pop descriptions. You know what it is (“Black and Yellow” is not what it is despite being “you know what it is”).
Sheeran played “Shape of You” live at the Grammys a few weeks ago, and, per usual, he brought the loop pedal out with him. It’s a cool trick, don’t get me wrong, but it has the side effect of laying the Ed Sheeran Single Formula bare: dead strums as percussion, a nimble guitar part or two, wordless post-chorus that he stacks on-top of itself, and live strumming/singing to finish. And, particularly with “Shape of You,” using the loop pedal feels like a smoke and mirrors tactic to hide what a thin song this is; you watch him perform this mediocrity, and your attention is drawn to him doing a spinning plate act with different channel loops while playing/singing live instead of, you know, the song being dull as shit.
And “Shape of You” is dull. The whole thing stays on repeat musically, and in terms of lyrics, it’s closer to “Fuck me, I’m Ed fucking Sheeran” wish-fulfillment than “Sing” ever was. To wit:
“The club isn’t the best place to find a lover/So the bar is where I go” Ed Sheeran doesn’t go to da club, he goes to bars where he can find people to talk to about Hemingway and Monet, and all the very smart things he knows about. Sure.
“Me and my friends at the table doing shots” Dude, if you’re pounding shots are you sure you aren’t at a club or at a bar with a dancefloor? Otherwise, why get smashed right away?
“Take my hand, stop, put Van the Man on the jukebox/And then we start to dance, and now I’m singing” Ed Sheeran’s really out here saying he was just hanging at a bar, chatted this girl who came up, and whisked her away with “Brown Eyed Girl” like it’s a Thing That Really Happened.
“Girl, you know I want your love/Your love was handmade for somebody like me/Come on now, follow my lead/I may be crazy, don’t mind me” I sort of respect it when artists string as many filler lines together as possible like this. At least he doesn’t say “baby” anywhere.
“I’m in love with you body” I need a favor: I need someone to say this exact line to a person they’re trying to bed, and I need you to tell me how quickly it took things to go south.
“I’m in love with the shape of you” This is the perfect answer for when your SO asks you what’s your favorite feature of theirs, and you don’t have an answer ready. You’re welcome.
“You and me are thrifty, so go all you can eat/Fill up your bag, I’ll fill up a plate” Dude, you’ve had “Opened for Taylor Swift” money for the last 4 years, you’re fine. You wouldn’t have to release an album again after opening for T.Swift. Just ask HAIM.
“Shape of You” is a bust, but it might not mean all is doomed for Divide as a whole. Sheeran’s albums tend to be pretty stylistically diverse. At the same time, “Shape of You” just blithely adapting last year’s trends for down the middle pop isn’t encouraging. It reminds me most of Maroon 5’s recent output, but at least Maroon 5 wrote “Sunday Morning” before giving up, and Ed hasn’t even made it that far. “Shape of You” has fought against “Bad and Boujee” for number one over the last month, and while “Shape of You” might have won on the charts, it’s a foregone conclusion that Migos have already won the culture.