By Spencer Bowen
Via the ever-reliable Urban Dictionary:
Heat check (noun)
An attempt to do something extra difficult when you’re on a roll.
Dan: Dude, you launched that trey from halfcourt.
Jermaine: It was just a heat check man. I was feelin’ it.
I’m sure they chose the names “Dan” and “Jermaine” completely at random. A heat check is Steph Curry pulling up from 35 feet just because he can. A heat check is FDR trying to pack the courts. A heat check is J.R. Smith every minute of every day because in J.R. Smith’s mind he is always hot. And a heat check is Ed Sheeran dropping an album full of rap, Gaelic music, what really should’ve been a Rihanna song, and probably one too many ballads and still owning the music world.
Sheeran is unabashedly a star now, having used his ginger locks to carve a path for some crooning/poppy/folksy semi-stars – something I define as the difference between Jason Derülo (semi-star) and Usher (star) – like Shawn Mendes and Charlie Puth. He’s the only solo act to ever sell out Wembley Stadium and he penned the best song on Justin Bieber’s best album. He oozes just as much talent now as he did as a young and scrappy loop pedal YouTube sensation, perhaps because he’s still loop-pedaling to his heart’s content.
And he’s managed to cobble an incoherent mess into an arresting and impressive album. There’s no arc to the record, no narrative shape like the Avett Brothers or Kendrick Lamar bring to their work. But it’s charming, and not only because Ed is still adorable. The album is daring and multicultural, featuring Ghanaian beats and Irish fiddle. It’s multidimensional, effortlessly deploying scrappy rapper Ed and goopy slow dance Ed.
Yes, the whole effort feels a little calculated. He goes back to the “Thinking Out Loud” well a couple too many times and “Shape of You” is pretty shamelessly a dance song made for big time radio bucks. But it also feels like Sheeran said “I’m going to make a weird, disjointed, really impressive album and you are going to eat it up.”
This is Ed Sheeran’s heat check. And he isn’t cooling off anytime soon.
Even Ed’s worst is still pretty good. Lines like “friends and family filled with envy when they should be filled with pride” feel a little incongruent with his shaggy, I’m-besties-with-Taylor, aw-shucks persona. But it’s a true intro track, and that’s good. Beyond that, Sheeran’s showing off a musical aesthetic that we’ve already seen multiple times. Not unenjoyable, but empty calories.
Here we go. Driving, raw, and singable. Sheeran has a talent for revealing, emotionally centered lyrics that help his songs do what all good songs do: make the story about us, not him. Lines like “Singing to ‘Tiny Dancer’” and “my first kiss on a Friday night / I don’t reckon that I did it right” help prevent this song from becoming what it could’ve been without thoughtful writing: a middle of the road Coldplay knockoff. Instead, it’s one of the strongest on the album.
The unofficial working title of “Dive” is “The Ed Sheeran Senior Prom experience.” This is as close as he’s ever come to an R. Kelly song (without the misogyny and creepiness), and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Still waiting on the Ed / Usher collaboration (two Usher mentions already!).
Ok, I’ll just say it: “Shape of You” isn’t actually good. You can tell that he initially wrote this vaguely Caribbean dance hall beat for Rihanna and not himself and you can tell that the beginning is a rip off of “Wait for It” from Hamilton (don’t let the failing FAKE NEWS media tell you I just made that last fact up – they’re grasping at straws! Sad!). But it’s catchy and it’s danceable and it’s currently setting up shop at No. 1. I dare you not to sing along.
This is the spiritual sequel to “Thinking Out Loud.” Is it heretical to suggest that it may be just as good? “Perfect” is a little more vocally restrained and features the line “I found a woman stronger than anyone I know,” so I’m pretty much all in. “Thinking Out Loud” is better lyrically, but “Perfect” is a lot more interesting musically. The fact that I’m even entertaining this argument is a good sign for this track and the album as a whole.
It’s radio friendly, it’s got Gaelic fiddle, it’s got clever lyrics, and it’s my favorite track on the album. It won’t win any awards for musical complexity or emotional depth, but these are the kind of nits you pick after listening to a song 13 times in a row.
This will kill at live shows. Holy cow “Happier” is good. “Perfect,” despite its many solid qualities, sounds like Sheeran was consciously trying to top “Thinking Out Loud” (wait, that’s actually what he was trying to do) whereas “Happier” crackles with fresh energy. Story songs full of of accessible, moving lyrics showcase Ed at his best, and “Happier” is magnum opus Sheeran.
A poor man’s “You Need Me I Don’t Need You.” It shows off Sheeran’s raw talent and vocal dexterity, but it’s got some groan-worthy lyrics. Even roasting that guy who “drinks beer but has a six-pack, I’m kinda jealous”cannot save “New Man” from basic fun palette cleanser status.
Coupled with “New Man,” “Hearts” completes a two song intermission that sets up the album’s second act. This track is nice, but not super compelling. Next.
And we are back! Almost a political statement, although that might be my radical leftist Berkeley education showing. This song is screaming out for an a capella rendition by a guys group and is kind of sneaky good. It’s got the best kind of ear worm quality.
If “How Would You Feel” gives you distinct John Mayer vibes, you’re 100% correct. The guitar solo about three minutes in is performed by none other than Mayer himself, the patron saint of almost good music. The entire song feels like Ed Sheeran trying the John Mayer genre on for size. He makes it work, but on an album that synthesizes so many other genres and vibes, this song falls short.
Wow. It’s the story of his grandmother’s funeral through the eyes of Sheeran’s mom, and it’s solid gold. Personal and universal, simple and grand, “Supermarket Flowers” delivers Sheeran at his most moving.
My personal preference for raspy-scream, dance-beat Ed might be showing, but I love this. I’m currently brushing up on my Catalán lisps because I’ll need them once I book my ticket to Barcelona. I’m pretty sure this song is playing 24/7.
Ed wrote this in Ghana with “Antenna” artist Fuse ODG, and I might head to Africa right after Barcelona because this song is dope. The dance party continues, this time with a groovy African flavor. “Bibia Be Ye Ye” translates to “All will be well,” and it certainly will as long as I stop moving my shoulders so saucily on the shuttle bus where I’m writing this review. My fellow passengers are starting to stare.
Ireland returns, as told from Ed’s grandfather’s point of view. “Nancy Mulligan” lands squarely in Ed’s sweet spot. It highlights his pop sensibility, his lyrical talent, and his ability to share a grand story in a finite timeframe. As an added bonus, when was the last time you heard a song that examines the Irish Catholic/Protestant divide?
The bow that wraps up a strange but deeply pleasing album experience. Sheeran is so consistently good that songs like this can get lost, and this track is really good. It doesn’t expand his musical boundaries like “Barcelona” or “Galway Girl” or knock you flat like “Supermarket Flowers,” but it’s quiet and personal and has a satisfyingly unfinished quality.
This is your daily reminder that Ed Sheeran is only 26. Get used to this flame-haired goober owning the airwaves for the foreseeable future.