AN intriguing blend of the brilliant and the bland, Ed Sheeran’s third album can be, quite aptly, divided into pretty but forgettable acoustic ballads and, well, something a bit more interesting.
All 11 tracks from the standard version occupy top 30 positions in the album chart at the time of writing, thanks to new rules including streaming as well as sales.
But it’s no coincidence that catchy, uptempo songs take higher slots than the more intimate, acoustic efforts — there’s simply more going on.
And I can see this streaming success translating into yet more album sales as the more infectious songs creep under listeners’ skins.
It would be easy enough to dismiss the scruffy-haired ex-busker from Suffolk as a drippy troubadour and Divide proves yet again that for every enduring Photograph or Thinking Out Loud there are a handful of less impressive slow numbers.
Sheeran’s distinctive voice and impressive range barely save Perfect, Hearts Don’t Break Around Here or Happier from disappointingly-slushy territory.
They’re all fine, but forgettable, only Dive standing out above the average by Sheeran’s stirring vocal performance.
Where the singer-songwriter really excels is when he’s pushing himself more musically or lyrically.
Sheeran's music is both accessible but varied, and he's at his best when taking a few risks.
The R&B/hip-hop stylings of album opener Eraser (a self-aware reflection on the pitfalls of fame) and chart smash Shape of You showcase Sheeran’s verbal dexterity and way with a sharp lyric, while the Ghanian-influenced Bibia Be Ye Ye and fabulously Mediterranean Barcelona transport the listener across the world with their contagious beats and hummable choruses.
But more of all, Sheeran is a storyteller, at his best when painting pictures with his lyrics.
Anyone nostalgic for their youth (aren’t we all) will identify with the content of Castle on the Hill, a love song to Sheeran’s teenage years with echoes of Keane’s similarly autobiographical Sovereign Light Cafe.
And Supermarket Flowers, a son’s tribute to his recently-departed mother in the immediate aftermath of her parting, will resonate with anyone who has lost a fondly-missed relative or friend.
Galway Girl, the third single, has the singer catching the eye of a local girl in an Irish bar, and I also liked the pointed New Man, a dig at an ex’s preening phoney of a new lover.
Whether taking you to the centre of a heaving dancefloor or behind the wheel on a welcome drive home, Sheeran is a master a putting the listener in the heart of the moment.
On second or third listen, I found myself skipping a few tracks, but there’s enough quality in there to suggest a few will be playlisted for some time to come.
q If you’re thinking about investing, splash out a few quid extra on the deluxe edition.
Bonus tracks Bibia Be Ye Ye, Barcelona, Nancy Mulligan (the swirling story of a couple’s elopement) and the heart-breaking Save Myself are all winners and sure to improve your “shuffle” experience.