Ed Sheeran has always had a penchant for relatable, meaningful and heartfelt, though sometimes overwrought, lyrics and has played with blending more upbeat types of music with the traditional singer-songwriter formula, like the singer-songwriter acoustic rapping in +’s ‘You Need Me, I Don’t Need You’ or in x’s ‘Don’t’ and ‘Sing’.
Yet very little of what made him interesting before can be found in the first of his two new singles, ‘Shape of You’, which is a tropical-pop-inspired dance song about bringing someone home from a bar. That description sounds like it could’ve been written for 23 other songs released the past year, which is fitting considering how much it sounds like Sia’s ‘Cheap Thrills’, Justin Bieber’s ‘Sorry’, or any number of Kygo remixes. It’s a musical trend which sounded fresh at the start of the year and peaked in mid-2016. On ‘Shape of You’, it just sounds stale.
When you realise that the song was originally written for Rihanna, it makes sense. There’s a feeling of inauthenticity to the lyrics and the production, which sounds like an attempt to make a basic pop song sound like something else, which I couldn’t quite shake.
The second single, ‘Castle on the Hill’, is better. It doesn’t stand out particularly, but it does a good job selling the feelings of nostalgia and longing for a time long gone, with Ed sounding like he’s at least being genuine. “We watched the sun set / Over the castle on the hill” is basic, functional lyricism but Ed puts enough emotion into the delivery of the lyrics to sell us on that feeling, and when he sings about his old friends in the bridge, you get swept along in it. Even then, it feels like it’s doing the bare minimum that it needs to be doing. Its lyrics are simplistic, and the song doesn’t go anywhere interesting.
Ed Sheeran has had a hand in a lot of hits in the past few years; he co-wrote Major Lazer, Justin Bieber and MØ’s ‘Cold Water’, Bieber’s ‘Love Yourself’, and a number of One Direction songs, including their acoustic ballad ‘Little Things’ (because of course he did), but he seems to have picked up the wrong ideas from these writing sessions. His new songs are decent, maybe even good if you’re feeling generous, but they’re also generic, sanitised and uninspired, which is disappointing coming from the man who wrote the lyric ‘they say I’m up and coming like I’m fucking in an elevator’.