“Treacly” and “boring” aren’t words you’d typically ascribe to one of the world’s biggest pop stars.
But they’re adjectives that journalists and festival organisers have lobbed at Ed Sheeran, who rock icon Morissey slammed in 2015, telling American newspaper Boulder Weekly that “things can’t possibly get any worse” than his music.
Yet despite the vitriol, the scruffy British troubadour has achieved perhaps inexplicable success. His first two albums – 2012’s + (Plus) and 2014’s x (Multiply) – have accrued nearly 3 billion streams combined and sold more than 20 million song downloads, according to Nielsen Music. His latest single, Shape of You, has reigned atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart for five weeks, making Sheeran the first artist ever to debut in the top 10 with two songs simultaneously (the other being Castle on the Hill” which bowed at No. 6 in mid-January). It also topped the charts around the world, everywhere from Israel to Mexico, the Czech Republic to Hong Kong.
And it seems with his third album ÷ (aka Divide), the prolific 26-year-old could reach new heights.
Judging solely by its singles, “I think (this album will) take him to the next level,” says Jem Aswad, senior editor of music magazine Billboard. “He’s already selling out stadiums. You can’t get much bigger than he is, but from all indications, it seems like this album could do that.”
It helps that “his music is multi-generational”, Aswad says. “His inoffensiveness is something that puts people off, but at the same time, it opens him up to acceptance from a much wider demographic.” Already, Sheeran has a combined 41.4 million followers across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, where he’ll regularly garner more than 500,000 likes for his casual, cheekily captioned photos of cats, snacks and his shirtless, tattooed body.
“In the age of seeing things play out in real time and very calculated images being scrutinised, I think him being him has played into his success,” says Anne T. Donahue, a columnist at MTV who has written about Sheeran. “He’s never tried to learn to dance or [sing] harmony with a boy band. … He’s a very white young man with red hair from England, so he’s not facing a huge uphill battle or anything, but it’s important that he’s never compromised his image.”
It’s a soft-spoken but playful persona that he has cultivated since 2012, when he packed a one-two punch in the USA with his Grammy-nominated single The A Team and guest appearance on Taylor Swift’s Red (on duet Everything Has Changed). The country-turned-pop star’s co-sign was pivotal in Sheeran’s ascent, allowing him to build a stateside fan base as an opener on her Red Tour’s North American leg.
“The association was close enough for him to be able to benefit from it, but not so close that he was eclipsed by her,” Aswad says. “The timing on it worked very well and helped him out enough that he can stand on his own.”
Now, Sheeran has two Grammy Awards (song of the year and best pop solo performance for Thinking Out Loud) and a stacked résumé boasting collaborations with Pharrell Williams (Sing), The Weeknd (Dark Times) and Rick Rubin (Don’t). He’s also managed to grow both sonically and lyrically: marrying tropical house with acoustic guitar on Shape of You, and moving away from his usual navel-gazing on Castle on the Hill.
“He’s writing in terms of, ‘I grew up, I used to have these friends, this is how everyone’s living’,” Donahue says. “That actually [shows] an incredibly self-reflective standpoint.” If he continues his gradual evolution on this next album, Donahue adds, “I think he’ll have no problem fitting into the 2017 pop climate.”