On October 28, popular English singer and songwriter Ed Sheeran released the fourth installment of his symbol album series, =, via Atlantic and Asylum Records. This album has been four years in the making, preceded by +, which was released in 2017.
= was teased by the early release of three singles: “Visiting Hours,” which came out the same day the album was announced, “Bad Habits,” which was released on June 24, and “Shivers,” which was released on September 9. The latter two singles premiered alongside accompanying music videos, both of which currently have over 60M views on YouTube, and all three songs have reached popular acclaim, peaking on Billboard’s Top 100 and the UK Singles Chart.
Sheeran counted down to the release of = with a global live-stream celebration on Apple Music. During the live event, the singer joined Apple Music’s Zane Lowe remotely to play new songs from the album, to chat about the new album, and to answer questions from fans.
While = has received mixed to average reviews from critics, the album was well-received by fans. = debuted at number one in the United Kingdom after selling over 150k units within the first week of its release, scoring the biggest opening week for an album of 2021 in the UK.
Sheeran has described = as a “coming-of-age” album. During the four years in which he has been working on writing and recording the fourteen songs included in the album, Sheeran has experienced marriage, the birth of his first child, and also losses as well. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the releases of a few of the singles from this album, and has also influenced the approach on a few of the latter songs as well. According to Sheeran, = represents “something deeply personal” to the musician, and the album has presumably seen him through several of those significant life changes, hence the divergence of his conventional approach to songwriting.
= is most notably a collection of pop, R&B, and new wave music. “Overpass Graffiti,” the fifth song on the album, contains elements of synth-pop, while “Love in Slow Motion” contains elements of a ballad-like belt. “Bad Habits” is a combination of dance-pop and synth-pop, with some critics comparing Sheeran’s composition and execution as similar to Canadian singer’s The Weeknd’s sound and approach, especially “Blinding Lights.” Sheeran has confirmed that Bad Habits” was deliberately written to “surprise people” and “make something that was completely different” than what was expected of him, which it definitely did.
“First Times,” the third song on the album’s track listing, broke up the flow of dance and synth pop moments with a quiet interlude. Sheeran recalls the inspiration behind this particular song as a quiet moment after just having performed at Wembley Stadium, the biggest stadium in the UK. According to Sheeran, the song was inspired when his wife brought him a beer after the roar of chaos and they two shared a drink and reflected.
The folk pop song seems reflective of quiet moments amidst the general chaos of the pandemic, a sentiment that Sheeran cherishes and thus repeats through the album through the pacing of his songs. More emotional, intimate melodies such as “The Joker and The Queen” brings the mood to a quiet hum between more upbeat songs such as “Collide” and “Stop the Rain.” Sweeter, less serious songs, such as “Sandman,” a song that seems to have been inspired by his daughter, Cherry, due to its music-box-like composition and endearing melody, bring the album to a close alongside the contemplative but cautiously optimistic “Be Right Now.”
All in all, = seems to be an intrinsic sort of album compared to previous titles in the symbol album series. While the songs may not resonate as strongly with critics compared to the viral hits “Shape of You” or “Thinking Out Loud” from previous albums, Sheeran’s approach to = seems rather to be a homage towards his emotional journey in the past four years, celebrating love and life while simultaneously mourning loss and confusion in a world still ravaged by confusion amidst the pandemic, resulting in an enjoyable and heartfelt collection of songs accessible to any listener.
To celebrate the release of his newest studio album, Ed Sheeran will be embarking on a worldwide tour in 2022. The singer will be hitting up locations in Asia, Australia, Latin America, North America, and Europe. For a complete list of dates and cities, check out Ed’s website here.
In the meantime, stream and enjoy Ed Sheeran’s new album, =, here!