Earlier this week, on a day when the former prime minister of the UK faced the House of Commons privileges committee in a hearing that could theoretically end his political career, one tabloid newspaper decided that the biggest story of the day was that Ed Sheeran no longer takes drugs (an admission he’d made during a lengthy interview with the US Rolling Stone magazine). That perhaps tells you something about said paper’s political allegiances and news values, but it also tells you something about Ed Sheeran: 12 years after his album + catapulted him into the mainstream consciousness in no uncertain terms – it ended up in the UK’s bestselling albums of the year chart for eight years in a row – he’s still an exceptionally big deal, big enough that a tabloid newspaper can just about get away with filleting a few quotes from a magazine feature and sticking them on the front page as a distraction tactic.
Times have changed, so have tastes – sweeping away a lot of the Sheeran-alikes that did good business in the wake of his initial success – but the definite article’s popularity seems almost impregnable. Carping voices, of which there are many whenever Sheeran’s name is mentioned, might point to the fact that his last album, =, didn’t sell as well in the US as its predecessors, but such things are very relative indeed: it went straight to No 1 there, sold 1.3m copies in 2021 alone and spawned five platinum or multi-platinum singles. Faced with failures that profitable, even the aforementioned carping voices might be forced to admit that Sheeran clearly has something the public want: a knack of writing songs that get under millions of skins, an innate understanding of mass taste, a formula for success.
A lot has been made of the fact that his forthcoming album, -, has been produced by the National’s Aaron Dessner, who worked on Taylor Swift’s Folklore and Evermore, two albums that represented a left turn towards Pitchfork-friendly alt-folk. Judging by Eyes Closed, the transformative effects of having Dessner behind the mixing desk are less pronounced.
It’s certainly a little more stripped-back than previous Sheeran singles; there’s more reverb on the guitar and accompanying synth, and some atmospheric, wind-like ambient noises in the background. The lyrics feel more personal and explicitly linked to a very specific event, in this case the death of his friend, entrepreneur Jamal Edwards, than in his earlier work. Although they broaden out the personal to make a more general point about death – “I pictured this month a little bit different,” he sings, then adds: “No one is ever ready” – and, as the Rolling Stone journalist pointed out, in a part of the feature not alighted on by the UK tabloids, Sheeran has always been a fairly prosaic writer, wont to announce that he’d become a father and grown up as a result by opening a song with the words “I have grown up, I am a father now”.
And besides, from its opening notes – the kind of percussive guitar playing that Sheeran has used since the start of his career – it’s very clearly his work: in the highly unlikely event that there are any lingering doubts about who’s behind it, they should be cleared up when it hits the chorus, which is every bit as insistent and radio-friendly as that of every other Ed Sheeran hit. Perhaps Swift’s two woody, folksy Dessner-produced albums seemed like more of a musical shift because they came in the wake of Lover and Reputation, both albums that majored in brightly hued electronic pop. Ed Sheeran was pretty woody and folksy all along: if your shtick already involves being able to keep a whole stadium rapt with just an acoustic guitar when the onstage tech goes wrong, there’s less distance to traverse. Or perhaps Sheeran isn’t in the business of tearing up the plans and starting completely afresh: given the longevity of his success, why would he be?
So it’s business almost as usual, and you’d be astonished if it isn’t another enormous hit. Sheeran told Rolling Stone he was afraid of the cachet of hipness he’s never had attaching itself to his work as a result of collaborating with Dessner – “all my biggest records”, he pointed out, “[critics] have hated” – but there doesn’t seem much chance of that. Ambient noises and reverb notwithstanding, Eyes Closed sounds like Ed Sheeran, which means you already know if you’ll love it, loathe it with every fibre of your being or simply marvel at its effectiveness without being moved.