The goldfish walker is a watermark for pointlessness. Thanks to metalworker Mick Madden, you are free to recreate it, welding a trolly upon which a fish tank sits pinned by three strings. You then wheel the trolley around parks, roads and mental hospitals. Mr. Madden claimed his fish were looking bored and needed stimulation. That may be the case. I am not a fish therapist. The only time I look a fish in the eyes is when it’s unable to return the compliment. Yet I have a question.
Who, exactly, is the goldfish walker for? If you buy a goldfish, you are avoiding the responsibilities of many other pets – those with legs. You don’t mind leaving a gold thing going round and round in the background of a single room in the house. Perhaps you’d be better off with a screensaver. If you’re a fish person, love frightens you. It does. Sorry. You definitely don’t want to share intimate social moments with an animal. You want it to look pretty while doing something, like a painting in Scooby Doo. The goldfish walker is an aberration, a Ballardian horror for people who don’t know what on earth they seek for companionship.
For the record, I’m not saying Ed Sheeran is abhorrent. He’s fine. He plays an instrument. He does Glasto on his todd and has cool tricks with a loop pedal. But on hearing his newest chart carpet bomb, = (equals), I was reminded very much of Mick Madden lugging his fish from pub to pub. Who the hell is Ed Sheeran for?
Let’s say you enjoy his acoustic emergence, the heart-tattooed-on-sleeve-boy who used to rap about Nandos, wear bracelets and give you songs to fumble with in dark university kitchens. The + (plus) era was charming if overblown; the novelty of seeing a fella, who can actually play and sing well, shake the walls of BBC radio had a bygone ebullience – the singer-songwriter back from the dead. Even if weren’t crazy about his songs, you might at least savour his seat at the table.
However, adoring him seemed like wearing one pair of socks because they’re the first you find in the drawer. Countless acoustic acts, from Damien Rice and Neil Halstead to Newton Faulkner and The Tallest Man On Earth, had better material, stories and panache. Sheeran’s omnipresence became the sign of a pop market that simply doesn’t know where to go for sensitive types that aren’t playing Starbucks covers of Elton John. It was as if radio needed a clean-cut troubadour, and it happened to be Ed, and hundreds of millions of people could settle for that. Anyone over 40 could therefore claim that real music was back, while teenagers finally had a reason to buy a capo and practice the G chord, relieved they could spoil parties with stuff everyone knew.
But then Sheeran’s scrappy, unthreatening face began to twitch with . . . lust? Machismo? Surely not the lure of a maraca . . . Like a hedgehog with a hormone injection, he wasn’t content with curling up at the foot of your flagstone anymore. He wanted to prick you.
2014’s x (times) brought more pomp and stomp to the school leavers’ ball. By the time we got to ÷ (divide), our Ed had split in two. He was still the consummate balladeer: wailer of castles, admirer of daisies. But now he went out at night – at last, he was clubbing, and God didn’t help us. The timorous appeal of his guitar songs sunk headlong into awful, awful floorfillers. You know what I’m talking about. The whole first half of this review strikes me as pointless, but then again, maybe I’m leading by example. Writers are expected to hate Ed Sheeran. I do not, but I wish I did. At least I’d worm my way towards understanding, because for the life of me, I can’t work out who listens to half-good acoustic numbers on the same record as the backing music to ASDA’s cheese aisle.
= is the epitome of everything Sheeran has courted and hinted at: so many minute shades of beige, more than we’d ever ask for; po-faced anthems we will bear in bars, conference centres, burger vans and hospitals; a sincere attempt to make us feel great by cleaning away all mess and contradiction about the human spirit with paint thinner. Only, thinner than that.
The kindest thing you can say is that none of this is shameless. I do think Ed is trying. ‘Joker & The Queen ', probably the most listenable track, lays its head on a bare piano. “When I fold, you see the best in me,” he tells a woman who’s seen his worst sides and remains by them. Two-part harmonies rise from a small orchestra. He does what he can with diamonds, hearts but no joker foolery; he might be able to crack a reconciliation, though not a smile. = is deadly earnest. As we learn on ‘Tides’, he’s a dad “with no regrets / But I wish I did things in a different way.” I’m not sure that makes sense. However, it’s another bright spot with Sam Fender-lite anthemism rushing around rock and roll. There’s an unexpected pause at the chorus. Dynamically, at the outset, we are well-equipped for a stadium visit. Go on. Knock us dead, Ed.
And then very, very quickly, the album nosedives, and my main issue is that it’s not a spectacular crash – you might forget you heard it. ‘Bad Habits’ is tremendously terrible, mid-tempo dance with an eye on shopping malls. Electrified vocals caw around the lead, EDM 101 that recalls all of the weird kinda-bird noises you may’ve spotted on radio fare two or three years ago. Why is there even a guitar here? When the rest of the instrumentation drops out, it whimpers like a winter newborn, smothered by forces it cannot control.
= is consistently uninspired in terms of when and where instruments sit in the mix. Strings are often rendered flat and limp. Kickdrums are given most of the heavy lifting. There’s hardly a sense of heft, scope and visceral excitement. ‘Stop The Rain’ leaps into the fray with a chuggy riff before mushing everything together, revealing itself to be a cast-off siamese twin in Maroon Five’s attic. ‘Love In Slow Motion’ trembles with Springsteenian pageantry (“I just get caught up in the rat race I’m running / Chasing the moment I’m hoping is coming”) without giving us a sec to just stop and soak it in. Sheeran’s voice dominates. He is always singing, always giving it beans, yet they’re toxic – they’re all we get to eat. His insistence wears us out. He’s yelling about planes and sunrises and rain clouds. There are a thousand rom coms better than this.
Sometimes, Sheeran observes bollocks like, “Whatever you feel can never be wrong.” No, it can. Or he’ll remember a dead friend fondly because “[they] always do what’s right.” Apologies, but it’s insanely reductionist to say that someone is perfect because they feel a certain way or were a good role model. Alphabet soup has more to say about being a person. And I’m not claiming that pop should be intricate or quote Camus, but there are no wrinkles here whatsoever. = is concerned with polarities: sad vs. happy, alone vs. together, famous vs. beers backstage.
Ed sees his wife as the antidote to stadium pressures on ‘First Times’; she reminds him of the primacy of experience, that taking the mic night after night should be special, that he will never get bored of us like he’s never bored of her. Meanwhile, three quarters of the LP taps a hand on its watch, begging us to go through the motions. ‘Visiting Hours’ proves once more that you must have a choir when any song mentions the word “heaven.” ‘Collide’ cuddles up to Coldplay, sharing a toothbrush, a home and a sick bag. It claims he went to an Irish bar in Rome. I hope he didn’t play ‘Galway Girl’ there.
Look, if you’re into Sheeran’s catalogue and trajectory, absolute power to you. Please tell me what I’m missing. Anyone who slurps up a billion streams within seven days of release must be doing something right. “Release week is always the worst week of the year,” he confided to Nessa Diab, “because you’re just battered. You’ll go, ‘Here’s something I really love! [...] Then that week passes and people start getting into the music. Everyone who doesn’t like it moves onto stuff that they do like, and everyone who does like it, sticks with it.” He seems like a lovely dude. Scruffy. Passionate. His own man. I can’t help imagining that he wouldn’t come across like a fantastic open mic singer in a goldfish bowl, gazing absently at places he can’t please.